Fire – should we run or stay?

Fire on headland

Fire on headland

Last Saturday in our quiet corner of “La La land” (aka Portugal), was just like any other day until we noticed plumes of dark grey smoke rising above the rooftops of the villas opposite.

Sandwich poised, and hovering en route to my mouth, I remained motionless as I stared at the thick billowing smoke in horror. With soaring temperatures the whole area was a tinderbox waiting to ignite. The hot southerly winds we had experienced over the previous weeks had dried vegetation to a crispy brown under the scorching sun.

How far away was the fire?

Were we in danger?

Taking an executive decision, Mr Piglet immediately leapt in the car and went on a reconnoissance mission to assess the situation.

Fortunately, the fire was down in the valley about two or three miles away. And luckily, unlike yesterday, there was not a breath of air and the fire seemed pretty much under control.

As the afternoon turned to dusk and evening fell, the billowing smoke ebbed and flowed changing from grey to black and then to grey. The usual sea-breeze stilled and there was an uneasy calm as birds chattered nervously on the telephone wires opposite our villa.

Occasionally, we would catch sight of light aircrafts in the distance, no doubt bombing the fire with water from above. Althought the drone of their engines continued for several hours the smoke continued to rise.

I looked nervously at Mr Piglet and told him to pack up the laptop while I threw a few things into a large bag. What was the procedure in the event we would need to evacuate? Would someone let us know, sound an alarm or would the decision be left to us? Fortunately, I’d only ever witnessesed wild fires on TV up until now, and was horrified by the devastation left in their wake in the space of a few minutes.

In 1999 this whole area was all but razed to the ground and many people had apparently lost their homes. Living on a headland surrounded by forests of pine, eucalyptus and dry scrubland, plus the fact there is only one road out, is a sobering thought when you stop to reflect.

As darkness fell the sky glowed orange in the distance. Should we go to bed? If the southerly winds returned during the night, as they had previously, they would fan the flames in our direction.

Could you sleep, knowing this?

We jumped in the car and finding some high ground as a vantage point tracked down the fire. Fortunately it had not spread in our direction and was still some distance away.

Fire still blazing at nearly midnight

Fire still blazing at nearly midnight

Satisfied all was well we returned home and went to bed. I don’t know becuase I did not sleep!

The next day, sorting through the emergency bag I’d packed in haste I discovered a strange selection of emergency supplies:

20 pairs of pants (just in case)
1 T-Shirt
Sun cream
Soap
Toothpaste
Stephen Fry’s poetry book “The Ode Less Travelled”. Which I thoroughly recommend if you want to write poetry.
3 pens and 1 pencil
Writing notebook
Camera
2 bananas
My handbag containing an assortment of rubbish.

Oh, and passports and driving license. Because I bet, even if you were running for your life and chased by 20′ flames, the GNR would not miss an opportunity to stop and fine you for not having the correct paperwork!

This was a stark reminder how vulnerable we are to the forces of nature and how grateful we should be to the brave bombeiros (fire department) who risk their lives to save others.

Our little wildfire was nothing compared to those experienced in the North and Central Portugal. But it does make you stop and think.

Useful information: Fire Risk Index

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42 responses to “Fire – should we run or stay?

  1. Goodness, looks far too close for comfort for me. Glad you didn’t get turned into pork crackling.

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  2. Well I’m in a red area, better get my passports and twenty pairs of pants at the ready.

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  3. Depending on how far away from the sea you are, I figure that would be the best place to run. I’m not a fire expert but it makes sense to avoid high ground what with wind drafts and thermal current stuff driving the pesky flames up hills instead of down them. But anyway, kudos on the 20 pairs of pants! You never know, right!

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  4. Glad to hear you weren’t affected by the fire – but this kind of thing does make you stop and think about what to do in such an event.
    We had a similar thing happen to us a few years ago, but with terrible floods in our area, and it made us realize we didn’t have an emergency plan of action to fall back on – scary. We do now!

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  5. Thank God you’re safe!

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  6. So glad you’re OK. It pays to have an evacuation plan in place ~ what to bring with you, where to go, etc.

    Wildfires are a big threat in the western U.S. Almost 20 firefighters were killed fighting one in Arizona last week. My brother in Colorado has been impacted by drifting smoke that makes the air quality less than stellar.

    Granny1947 blogging in South Africa had an experience like yours last year. She did not have to evacuate . . . but she could see the flames and smell the smoke. I would have a tough time sleeping under those conditions.

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  7. I’m glad you are unhurt…but only one road out…that would scare me in any environment.
    And, turning from fire to water we turned down lovely houses in France along the Loire Valley as they were behind the levees…if there was a breach they would have been flooded to the eaves.

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    • Hi Helen,
      I don’t blame you turning down a house near water.
      One road in and out is a little scary, expecially as we do not have a four wheel drive. Apparently the big fire they had in the 1990s people were evacuated to the beaches.

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  8. Glad you are ok…and lol about the packing 🙂

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  9. I have to live with that scenario for four months every summer in my part of Australia. So I’ll comment in a serious vein. Yes, i have been evacuated mutiple times, yes the fire has come within about 100 metres just a few years back on Christmas night when everyone was pretty alcohol affected? Don’t all your radio and TV stations keep you up to date every few minutes? Police usually doorknock here as earlyy as there is a threat. We have thousands of volunteer firefighters on tap the moment anything looks ‘iffy’ like that. Don’t know about your conditions.

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    • Hi Eha,
      We don’t have Portuguese TV or radio. We did, but when they changed from analogue to digital we lost the signal. To be honest , it would not help because we would not understand what’s being said.

      You offer some excellent advice below, and things I did not even think of!

      THANKYOU 🙂

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      • Apologies in hindsight: did NOT mean to sound ‘smartyypants’ but it can be such a problem here. On the photo that wind was blowing it towards you at about 20-30 kms/hour, it would have taken quite some hours and probably passed to your right . . .?

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  10. Have WP problems, so second page! Watch for the wind direction: nothing to fear if it blows away from you towards the fire. In the summer months we always have a suitcase packed: the most important things are your insurance papers, your medications, any other medical papers, passpotrs and other personal papers, your glasses if you wear thm: spares too. Only cotton and wool clothing: synnthetics will kill you, spare shoes – and, for God’s sake keep away from embers: you won’t be able to breathe! OK: lecture over and good luck 🙂 !

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  11. Sounds scary and a good reminder for organizing a travel emergency kit – it could happen anywhere, anytime, to anyone!

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  12. I think we are in a ‘red’ zone according to a map I saw the other day, I know last years the fires around us were horrendous, friends of ours spent 12hrs battling the flames to stop them spreading into their garden. I am not sure I would be so gallant. Last year I had packed the three p’s – pants, papers and portable hard drive with all my photo’s on. Plus pets and husband of course but that goes without saying. We had a fire less than a km away from us last year but was told unless the locals are panicking then don’t panic. I spent the entire time staring at my neighbour’s every move. They didn’t even blink an eye, even when embers were being blown over us. The Bombeiros put it out quite quickly luckily.

    It’s an unnerving time of year though but thankfully have yet to see any fires in this area.

    Stay safe!

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    • Hi Tosata,
      We are also in a red zone. You were certainly lucky. Strangely enough we were watching our only neighbours…I’m not sure I’d battle with flames for 12 hours. You could quite easily become trapped as we live in the national park…

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  13. It seems, even in Paradise we have to be aware of the dangers! Good idea about the escape plan, including the 20 pairs of pants. Knowing how difficult they are to get out here.

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    • Hi Mc, that’s tru about the cotton pants, they are difficult to get here. I knew there must be a reason shy I grabbed a handful! 🙂 On a serious note, did you read Eha’s comments above? She offers some great advice.

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      • Eha’s comments are interesting. I will be taking her advice and now see the threat of wild fires as very real. Especially as I recently heard that the Cistus plants which grow here with such profusion, spontaneously combust at 43 degrees C

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  14. I feel for you – we sometimes have to go through the same experience here. It’s very frightening. Trust your instincts, and even if you run for nothing, better to be safe than sorry.

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  15. Glad you are ok Carole. Fire can be frightening, we also had a close call many years ago, in our village when we lived in Portugal. But I don’t think I thought about an emergency kit back then!
    Thinking about it, I should have one ready for any emergency…

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    • It’s not something you really think of until something like this happens. OK, this was not a big fire and we were not in danger…this time. But next time it happens we could be. Trouble is it’s tourist season so anything could happen as they camp, light cigarettes and fires to cook etc.

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  16. Too close for comfort! Glad you are safe.

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  17. Very scary, glad to know you are well and that you can now sit back and really get a plan for just in case.

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  18. Living in a land of bush-fires, I can appreciate exactly how you felt. Very dangerous.

    Glad it was all OK!

    Hope those grand-kids of yours are all growing like trees! 🙂

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    • Hi Robyn, long time no speak. As youv’e probably noticed I’ve neglected my blog lately. Bad Piglet 😦

      Hope all is well with you and book is going well. Grand-kids are not only like trees but they ahve words as well now. How time flies!

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  19. Fires are really scary, PiP. Glad your place wasn’t in danger, and I did laugh at your emergency pack. I would say the camera and the poetry book are the most essential items. 😆

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  20. Hi PIP, being from Portugal I have experienced a few summer fires, being the last one in the city itself (in Coimbra a few years ago). The emergency kit is a great idea. I can leave you with a few tips, though I’m sure you may have done most of it already.
    – Keep your garden and house walls (and roof if you manage) as wet as as you can, as it prevents any flying ambers to spread the fire.
    – If you have plastic blinds (persianas) to your windows which are housed inside the wall keep them open to prevent them to melt or burn into the house.
    – When the fire is very close (i.e. at your door) the firemen/army will come, but by then you should probably be out! Try to speak with your neighbours and find out what is going on as they would advise through radio or word of mouth to evacuate (they may come to your door, but they may also rely on people’s help to spread the word). A fire 3 miles away can spread towards you quite quickly with the wind! When I was young, the bell in my grandma’s village was used for this type of emergecies.
    Good luck!

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  21. Scary!. I appreciate your presence of mind to pack things!.

    This is a traumatic experience. When I was very young , I saw fires raging in far away fields while returning home form some fair. Our village was on the way, and I was so frightened , I used to have nightmare for years.

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  22. I’m reading this over a week later, and since I’ve seen some comments from you I am presuming you’re alright. What a scary experience.

    I think you taught me how to pack, though. I went on vacation with 1 pair of shorts that matched none of the tops I brought. Oh well. Nobody knew me.

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