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.
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)
Stephen Fry’s poetry book “The Ode Less Travelled”. Which I thoroughly recommend if you want to write poetry.
3 pens and 1 pencil
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