Portugal is a country well used to forest fires but in 2017 it suffered a new type of fire that the WWF have classed as being a sixth-generation mega fire, clearly linked to global change. WWF’s report.
The fires were uncontrollable and were repeated again later that year in both Portugal and Spain. In fact, the fires are now so common that Portugal has introduced extra preventative measures to help manage the outbreaks.
The typical wildfire season traditionally runs from June right through into September although we have heard that at times when there has been low rainfall, there have also been fires in April showing just how the change in climate is actually extending the fire period.
With dried out forests, untended rural land and strong and often unpredictable winds to fan the flames, the resulting fires can take days to put out. It is very un-nerving when a fire comes close with it’s acrid smell, thick black smoke and being able to see the wind spread the flames across and down the mountainside. Very scary to say the least.
The majority of firefighters, the Corpos de Bombeiros exist in most communities are are made up of volunteer firemen who do an absolutely amazing job. Over the past few weeks we’ve seen the fire engines racing off on several occasions to tackle the reported outbreaks. However, due to the often very rocky terrain, it is not always possible to access fires by land and it becomes necessary to attempt to put them out from the air.
A couple of weeks ago, when Mark was working in the longhouse and I was tidying the veggie plot we suddenly smelt smoke. Looking up to the mountains we could see that there were trees alight about a mile and a half from our Quinta. The wind was very strong, possibly because we live in a basin, and although we couldn’t see any flames the smoke was certainly moving very quickly toward us.
Within minutes two helicopters carrying huge bags of water and two bright yellow water planes were on the scene. They flew back and forth to the nearby Barragem to refill with water and it took about an hour for the smoke to subside. Although it looked at though the fire was out, we learnt that due to the deep roots of eucalyptus trees, they can remain on fire for days threatening to reignite the nearby trees at any point.
The next day, on our trip to the fountain to collect our drinking water, we drove past dozens of charred trees and blackened vegetation on the mountain side and we could see first hand the extent of the damage from the fire and over the next couple of days it was reassuring to see the helicopters checking the area out. I’m not sure exactly what started this particular fire, but as I’ve already mentioned, all very scary stuff re-enforcing the need to keep rural land cleared and follow the fire prevention advice.
On average each year fires destroy around 110,000 hectares, mostly due to negligence and despite the laws and hefty fines relating to land clearing, the fires continue. We try very hard to keep our farm tidy and as much as possible free from combustible materials such as dried grass, cuttings and general rubbish. Up until May, we were allowed to have bonfires on the farm to burn our waste but from June, it has been considered too hot and too dry for fires.
Although we’d cleared as much as we could before the deadline, we do still have some vegetation such as suckers from the olive trees and the long rambling vines that we need to dispose of on a regular basis but don’t want to start creating a huge pile of waste.
Fortunately we were gifted a shredder in the UK which has come in really useful shredding weeds, brambles and cuttings. It is a fantastic bit of equipment that turns a decent size bonfire into a small pile of shredded stuff which can then be burnt once the fires are allowed again. We have also learnt that our neighbours, Julie and Dave have several goats who just happen to love eating vines and olive trees.
We try to arrange our pruning days for when they are at their farm and pop our bags of cuttings round to Billy and his pals who soon get stuck in helping themselves from the bags and from the back of the truck.
After a couple of weeks working hard in the longhouse and on the land, we decided to take a well earned day off and head up the Gardunhas for a picnic with the Handscombes. With the temperature almost reaching 40, we were glad of the aircon in the truck although the narrow roads and steep drops left Mark feeling more than a bit hot under the collar.
Turning off towards Alcongosta we wound our way up the narrow mountainside, along the even narrower roads, through a couple of villages and up on past several families gathering together with apparently the same idea of having a picnic. After about 15 minutes the narrow road turned into an even narrower track and we found we had left the cars and people far behind us. Eventually, we reached the top of the mountain and parked up. The spectacular 360 views and the feeling of complete peace and solitude were breath-taking.
We pulled up next to a watchtower and apart from one solitary person acting as an early warning system for the fires we were the only people around for miles. Conveniently, there was a granite table and benches for us to use for our picnic, although there was the option of putting a picnic table on the hand-gliding platform had we wanted to. Nobody did.
We spent a lovely couple of hours chilling, chatting and enjoying our day off but the next day it was back to work as usual. We had let Jose the electrician know that we had boarded and painted the walls in the first part of the long house so he came back and spent a day connecting the sockets, switches and lights.
There was still no sign of our floor tiles being delivered and we were told that there was a problem with the manufacturing so it could be weeks if not months before we could get the ones we had chosen. We decided that the best thing would be to go back to the store and choose some different ones so one Saturday morning headed back to Tortosendo.
There really is a vast selection to choose from with tiles to suit all tastes, styles and budgets. However, we couldn’t find anything we liked so decided to have the same design throughout the first five rooms choosing a design that looked aged. The longhouse is over 120 years old so we have tried to be sympathetic to its history. There are plain and patterned tiles and the plan is that by carefully choosing the layout, the rooms will look similar, but not quite the same. When it come to tiling the new build, we will contrast this by choosing a very modern design, but this is way down the line.
A week later our tiles were delivered by a very friendly and talkative delivery driver who didn’t speak a word of English. Mark’s fundamental lack of Portuguese led to a very confused and disjointed conversation with finally some breakthrough when he recognised that our extension had been done by Ecositana. We learnt that he lived in the next village but that was about all we learnt after approximately half an hour of conversation – once again highlighting the need for us to take Portuguese language lessons.
It took quite a few days for Mark to lay the bathroom tiles, mostly due to the uneven floor. At one end of the room he used 3 millimetres of adhesive, whilst at the other end, to level everything up it was more like a centimetre. What would be quite straightforward in a room with a level floor and straight walls became very complicated and time consuming. However, with the bathroom floor complete and grouting done, the next room to tackle was the snug. If we thought the bathroom was uneven, the snug was something else!
The Snug floor slopes off in different directions, has a hump in the middle and an even larger slope into the next room.
We are learning that unorthodox methods have to be applied to get the jobs done and only by adapting can we achieve the results we want. This results in the whole process being more protracted but we get there in the end.
While Mark was busy in the longhouse, I was busy out on the land. I’m usually quite disciplined in packing everything away at the end of the day but on one particular occasion I’d left my gardening gloves out on the table. I went to put them on the following day and woke up a rather angry spider which had decided to make its home in one of the fingers. It let me know it wasn’t happy by delivering a nasty bite leaving two red bite marks. For about twenty minutes my finger was numb before getting pins and needles and finally returning to normal.
Fortunately, all my years of working at a dental practice and the training on managing sharps injuries held me in good stead and so no harm was done. The big lesson of the day though was to be mindful where I leave my gloves and now when they are not in use, can be seen hung upside down on the washing line.