Fires in Portugal

On Saturday afternoon, I notice a cloud of smoke from my garden in the woods near Pedrógão Grande.

I get into my car and drive up the hill, out of the forest to look for the source.

From the N2, I can see there is a fire in Escalos Fundeiros, the village that my piece of woods belongs to. It is a small fire and the fire station is only a few miles away, so it will be alright.

Driving back home, I decide to go to my mom’s house, because you never know. The day before, I already put my passport and papers in a bag, because I know the risk of fires is high at the moment.

I get my laptop, phones and chargers, and my crochet work, so I’ll have something to do. I don’t need any clothes, because I can wear something of my mom’s. Besides, I’ll be back tomorrow or the day after. Kitten in its travel basket, dogs in the car. Off we go.

It’s lovely and cool inside the house in Salaborda Nova. Unlike outside. It’s incredibly hot and there’s a strong wind. There was thunder and lightning that afternoon, and now it looks like there’s a storm coming. The dogs are panting on the tiled floor and I contemplate diving into the pool. Better not. I pour myself a glass of wine and watch a House of Cards episode on my laptop while crocheting.

At six o’clock my friend Natasha rings me. She lives in Castanheira de Pera and has a view of my village. She asks me if I’m safe, because there is a big fire in Escalos. I tell her not to worry: I’m in Salaborda.

I can see the fire from where I am, and I have taken a couple of photographs, but I’m not worried. We’ve had fires before, and the fire brigade always comes in no-time.

Fifteen minutes later another friend rings me. Michelle lives near my mom. She also knows about the fire in Escalos, and she wants to know if I’m safe. While we are talking the line goes dead. I try to ring her back and walk outside to get a better signal. That’s when I see that the woods at the back of the house are on fire. I run to the car. Come! Come on, guys! I have to go and get Harry and Texugo and lift them into the car. Luna hides underneath the car, so I have to get on my knees to lure her.

It isn’t until I have turned the car around to drive out of the village that I see that everything around me is on fire. The garden and the house on the other side of the road, the woods on either side of the road leading out of the village, next to and behind my mom’s house.

So I drive the other way, into the village. There are flames lining the road and behind the houses, and the further you go into the village, the further you go into the forest. At a small crossing, which is the widest part of the village, I see two men. How do I get out of here, I ask them. They say I have to go to Vila Facaia, because Salaborda Velha is burning as well. What are you doing here, I ask them. Get in! I don’t have to say it twice.

And then I drive back past my mom’s house into the sea of fire. It is hard to describe this, also because it is hard for me to think back to that moment.

The forest on either side of the road is burning. I cannot see where I’m going because of the thick smoke. All I can see are orange flames and burning leaves – or whatever it is – that are blowing across the road and around the car. I tell the man next to me to close the window. The road is curvy. The car hits the gully, I can see the ground burning. We almost topple over, but then the car bounces back on its four wheels. Only to hit the right side of the road, and the car topples the other way. This is it, I think.

We are going to die. We are going to die.

No, the man next to me says. He taps my shoulder. We are not going to die. Calma, calma. Devagar.

Het is right. I need to stay calm and drive more slowly. I squeeze his lower arm to thank him for his support.

It’s a miracle. We have managed to get out of the village alive! We are on the crossroads to Mosteiro and Vila Facaia. There is not as much smoke here. Every which way we look there are flames. There is a house burning on the right, on the left side of the road is a burning car.

Then I drive into Vila Facaia, where I am stuck for the next two hours.

The village is surrounded by fire. The street is full of cars. People want to drive out of the village in the direction of Adega, but they are stopped by people coming from that direction who want to escape through the other side of the village. A woman slams on the roof of my car. She yells, ajuda, ajuda! But I cannot help her. I don’t have any room left in the car.

With some difficulty I manage to turn the car around and drive back. Again I get stuck. The driver in the car in front of me wants to reverse, but there are other cars behind me. While I blast my horn and try to get the people behind me to reverse, the car in front of me reverses and drives into my car six times.

There is a parking spot around the corner near the playground. The men and I get out of the car. Nia, our youngest dog, jumps out and disappears. The vegetation next to the road is on fire as well. The smoke is suffocating, so I hide behind the building where a doctor and a nurse do consultations once a week.

I ring my husband. I am in Vila Facaia, surrounded by fires and I don’t know what to do. I will ring again when I have news. And I ring my daughter to tell her there is a fire, but I will ring her as soon as I am safe.

I see Michelle who, like me, escaped from her home with her dogs in the car. She is crying and asks me where we can go. The IC8 is closed, she tells me.

Meanwhile, I’ve lost sight of the two men who were in my car. And a minute later Michelle has gone as well.

I don’t know what to do. But I have to do something.

So I get back into my car and go right to see if I can get out of the village. I stop to talk to a few people. A man tells me to move my car. When the fire brigade comes, they have to be able to get through.

Further down the road there is enough room for me to stop. A woman is walking up and down in front of a house. I can see the hill behind her house is on fire. I suggest we hose the place down. I haven’t got any water, she says.Then there is another woman who ask me if my phone is working. She rings 112. That is when another one of my dogs escapes from the car. Harry.

After another hour I decide to drive to Adega, towards the IC8. I drive through Vila Facaia. By now, most of the cars have disappeared. I wonder where they have gone. There are flames coming from the windows of several houses, and there are cars burning on the side of the road leading to Adega.

I stop at the café in Adega where a few people have gathered. One woman is crying. Everything’s gone. Everything’s gone.

I can see that the exit to the IC8 is not closed and I ask if it has been cleared. Yes, they say, you can go to Figueiró dos Vinhos. So that’s what I do.

On either side of the IC8 the forest is burning as well. I can’t see the road. Now and again the air clears a little bit and I manage to swerve around a tree that is lying on the road. I see the temperature gauge of my car is in the red, but I cannot stop.

There is nobody else on the road. When I get to Figueiró, the flames are gone. I pass a couple of fire trucks that are going the other way.

I stop at the gas station in Avelar to catch my breath and to buy some water. I left the house without taking any water, and I am terribly thirsty. Plus, I have to clean the windshield, because it is covered in soot. I ring my mother, my husband, and my daughter to tell them I am still alive, but that our houses are probably destroyed.

The next couple of days I stayed with friends. I found Nia and Harry, talked to reporters, went to my mom’s house together with a reporter and cameraman of Dutch RTL News. I helped my friend Margarida who works with the fire brigade to track missing foreigners, and I cried for the kitten who was killed by one of the dogs from the shelter that had to be evacuated.

On my way to an appointment with a reporter of Dutch NOS Radio, my wonderful Nissan Terrano finally broke down – at exactly the same spot where I had to stop the week before because of a bee that landed between my legs.

The reporter picked me up, just as the AA arrived. We went to my house in the woods, where everything was just as I had left it. So it’s a mess, my wonderful Irish friend says.

A lot of people and animals have died. People who were sent back by the GNR when they wanted to flee via the IC8. People who stayed home. People who jumped into their cars and were trapped by the fire. A friend’s husband who was a volunteer with the fire brigade. The wife, mother and uncle of a friend who couldn’t get away on time. And many more. People from our village. People from neighbouring villages. People we know.

The heroes and heroins of the fire brigade that consists of 98% volunteers are being cheered. They are being cursed by others. Where were they? How could this happen?

A few days ago I saw an article with the title “What to do in case of a bushfire”, or something like that. Interesting and useful. But no matter how many guidebooks you read, if there’s a fire, you don’t know what’s the right thing to do. This fire spread so quickly and it went in all directions.

The area is charred and black and quiet. You don’t hear any birds or insects. All the sounds you normally don’t notice, are now noticeable because of their absence.

Vitor and his brother, the two men I took with me from Salaborda Nova to Vila Facaia, had left their personal belongings in my car. We looked them up on Thursday to give them their bags and papers, together with a bottle of wine. Vitor invited me to his birthday party. He will make bacalhau with chickpeas and potatoes. He told my husband I am “muito simpática”.

I’m doing alright. I’m still alive, I wasn’t hurt, my house is okay and I’m in the fortunate position that I can help other people.

I’m a tough broad, and if I get a bit short of breath, I just pretend nothing’s wrong. Yoga on Thursday. I will take some me-time then.

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