It’s over two weeks now since the fire.
It’s the first time I’ve ventured out to try to see the extent of the damage, having attempted it on day three and fled back home at the disturbing sights and smells of things still smouldering out there.
Just outside of the village, beyond the scorched grape vines, fences and olive trees, I enter into the forest and head gingerly for the sound of chain saws as a starting point.
I head for the top of the ridge to see if I can see over to the next village from there. Once there I hear more voices. The dog runs off to investigate. It’s three members of the ‘Big Family’ in my village out to attempt to reestablish their boundaries.
All the woodland is owned by the village but in small parcels, marked by little piles of boulders, posts, coloured ties or a stick with a plastic drinks bottle on the top. There’s not much evidence of any of these now.
They explain to me that at this time (and it happened in 1991 last) it’s important that you mark out your woodland again or you’ll find someone else has ‘accidentally’ made off with your trees for firewood.
The firewood and the land are now both unfit for sale, which was always the hope for many of the less well-off neighbours. All that remains is the onerous task of clearing your unstable woodland and salvaging what filthy, charred firewood remains for use in the kitchen.
They persuade me to walk with them over the mountain. After some time I am totally lost as everything is unrecognisable and have to spend an entire three hours with them, clambering down mountain sides in densely planted blackened woodland, swinging round charred trees, wading through ashes and trying not to break either of my legs in the deep potholes where trunks have burnt out. It’s all really eerie.
They explain to me that even though the pine trees are still standing, they will die. But many of the eucalyptus will come back to life. Even then, day 16, they were able to show me tiny green shoots here and there starting to show through on a couple of burnt stumps.
Some people have already been and done their markers, but not many. It is the great sadness of Portuguese forest – it is largely abandoned. Lands split and inherited by countless generations whom, by now, are abroad, deceased, living in the cities or maybe don’t even know they own it.
Abandoned land does not get cleared of its undergrowth – its broom, bracken, gorse and heather. That, as I have witnessed, is the main fuel to the fire.
I walked for miles with them and didn’t get to see the edge of the fire on any side. I got a good view from the main road that afternoon though on my way into town in the car and it was collosal.
The fires are still happening all around. Some of them as big as this and bigger. I am still unable to sit still without going to the window every twenty minutes, anticipating another sickening black plume of smoke on the horizon. We just pray for rain and cooler weather.
They say they are all started on purpose and a certain number of arrests have been made.
There have been three massive fires on the edge of our local market town in the last week. On Saturday a volunteer firefighter died when a fire engine became engulfed by the fire and their exit was blocked. The four colleagues are in intensive care on ventilators with second and third degree burns from making it out of there on foot through burning undergrowth. This firefighter however, a volunteer as they all are, burnt to death from the legs upwards.
I was so touched by this news the next day that I wrote a little song. And even more touched to learn from the neighbours in the woods that it was a girl, 25 years old, and she was pregnant.