Weep! Weep for Portugal!

Wednesday, September 14, 2016, 16:26

Forest fire between Esposende and Antas

We took our friends from New Zealand to Porto airport, had a farewell coffee together and left as they disappeared through customs. As we were in the vicinity of Ikea - yes, Scandinavian furniture is popular in Porto too – before heading home we popped in to buy some bedside tables. So it was a few hours between leaving Ponte de Lima in the early morning and when we took the A 28 to return to the Alto Minho.

To read about what we saw and what it meant, click here.
As we drove north, on the horizon we noticed a smudge, which hadn't been there when we drove down to Porto. As the kilometres passed it grew into a grubby stain and then became a billowing plume of white and brown smoke.

"It's a forest fire," I exclaimed, "But where?"

The road bent this way and that, confusing us as we speculated, "It's not Ponte de Lima, is it?" "No it's too near for that. Besides it's over to the left, towards the coast now."

We found where it was soon enough as an illuminated sign warned us that the motorway was closed between Esposende and Antas. Wondering what we should do we continued until a road block at the next exit, manned by police in high visibility jackets, forced us to turn east towards Barcelos. Soon we passed beneath the swirling cloud and, even through closed windows, we could smell the stench of burning pine and eucalyptus.

Next day, we saw an apocalyptic photograph in the Times on-line of firemen silhouetted against a background of raging flames labelled, "in northern Portugal". Was it the fire we saw? I don't know. It could have been but then again it could have been one of dozens of others.

Fire near Ponte da Barca and  Lindoso

This photo is of a fire we had seen a couple of days before. It was over towards Ponte da Barca but it may in fact have been beyond as people in a restaurant told us that the forest was up in flames all around Lindoso, the village where I had been delighted by sheaves and stooks just a few months earlier - Rejoicing in Lindoso.

So much of Portugal has burned in this hot summer. One day I read in the press reports on-line that a hundred and fifteen – yes you did read that right; it was 115! - active fires were burning across the country with the Minho, Aveiro and Vizeu areas particularly badly affected. I'm sad to say that not far from us parts of the Peneda Geres National Park, with its unique fauna and flora, was alight with raging fires. The land all around the new hotel I wrote about in Ancient and Modern in the Peneda Geres now consists of nothing but the blackened skeletons of plants interspersed with scorched boulders and ash.

(In some of those reports, the journalists seemed particularly concerned that Cristiano Ronaldo's five-million-euro house was endangered – it survived - but, of course, Ronaldo has more than one mansion and wouldn't be homeless like many in the north if the fires had reached their homes. However, it should be noted in fairness that the footballer has exhibited great generosity towards victims of the terrible fires on the island of Madeira, where he was born.)

What is hard to understand is how these forest fires continue to arise sporadically even after the main glut of fires has been put out. It seems unlikely that castaway bottles act as magnifying glasses and set light to the undergrowth because Portugal is a remarkably clean country, much cleaner than the UK, which it puts to shame. There are big bins everywhere and people seem to use them. Councils have, over the years, more or less eliminated the fly-tipping that I used to see years ago. So what is going on? Some people blame careless smokers dropping lit fag-ends out of car windows. Well, maybe the odd one but, after so much publicity year on year, can smokers really be so careless and anti-social?

Others say that that arson is to blame: there are people who love the spectacle of leaping flames, trees burning like Roman candles and firefighters with smoke-caked faces labouring to put them out looking like a vision of the imps of hell on the Day of Judgement in a Breugal painting. There must be some: there are arsonists everywhere but enough to create all this havoc?

Then again still others cite jealousy, the tall poppy syndrome when the less successful cut their more successful neighbours down to size by deliberately setting fire to their land. Is this true? I am not deep enough into Portuguese society to know the answer but I do know that here, as elsewhere in tight-knit communities, village feuds run deep and last almost for ever. Jealousy and revenge are a possibility. In almost every case, somebody must know but will they tell?

Fire to east of the A1 highway north of Pombal

Even as we thought the fires might be coming to an end we saw this one, snapped on my iPad as we zoomed by on a trip down to Santarem to visit friends. It began north of Pombal, over to the east of the arterial motorway, the A1. The plume of smoke accompanied us for 60 km. The darkening sky was commented on by our hosts when we arrived. We could tell them why.

Are you wondering if we have been affected personally? Not quite but we had a lucky escape. We were in the UK when word came that the land around us was burning. We heard that helicopters, many lent by other countries, were dropping water to retard the flames; that thousands of firefighters were working day and night to put the fires out, many dropping from exhaustion; that fire engines were being deployed in huge numbers. We crossed our fingers.

This is the land on the far side of the road from us.

The burned land behind our house in Calheiros

We asked our neighbour, Sr Joaquim, how many fire fighters had been there to stop the houses burning.

"None," he said. "They were too busy elsewhere with even bigger fires. We were alone with our hoses!"

So a very few men held the line and the fire didn't jump the road. If it weren't for the skeleton trees with their seared leaves you could think it a lunar landscape.

Behind another neighbour it looks like this.

Burnt land behind our neighbour's house in Esmorigo

People say, "It will soon green up again," and while this is true, the landscape changes as eucalyptus shoots again from the base but burnt pines are unable to rejuvenate. They are gone for ever.

It seems that there are now rules and regulations about planting gum trees. They can't be planted just anywhere or anyhow. They should be planted in straight lines on land flat enough for machines to go through, clearing away the undergrowth. Perhaps that will help but, in my untutored opinion, Portugal is not a country where they should grow at all. The problem, of course is economics, balancing the short term against the long term. Most trees take many decades to grow to a useful height. The eucalyptus grows fast and can be harvested soon. This is a poor country. How long must people wait to make a living? Are forest fires a price worth paying?

Do you have any stories, scary or otherwise, about the fires? Do write in and tell us what you think.  If you are Portuguese, please feel free to write in your own language. You don't have to write in English. (Lembre-se: o que é importante não é a língua mas a contribuição.)

Jude wrote:
Friday, September 16, 2016, 02:43
Dreadful to see such huge forest fires all over the place. We were shocked by the huge swathes of land that had been burnt - and how close it had got to your place.
Margaret wrote:
Friday, September 16, 2016, 10:44
Yes, it is distressing, isn't it? So many livelihoods destroyed! Considering the devastation, thought, at least only a very few lives have been lost, mostly in Madeira. The firemen here, in conjunction with local people, have worked hard to save people's houses. We, indeed, were very lucky and we are grateful for that.
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