Fleeing fire is what so many of us have done in the past few days. Some succeeded, many did not. In less than a week there were catastrophic fires along the Garden Route of the Western Cape in South Africa; in west London, UK; and here in the forests of central Portugal. There was a deep personal connection to all three of these events for me as each of these places has meant ‘home’ at different times of my life.
This photograph was taken by a friend as the plane in which she was travelling flew over the fire-ravaged town of Knysna in South Africa, the smoke still thick in the air days after the inferno in which ten thousand people were evacuated and seven people died. A good friend, a regular reader of this irregularly written blog, lost her home and her restaurant in the fire.
I had intended to write a post about the Garden Route fires and call it ‘No frogs, mayhem, and miracles’ but then Grenfell Tower burst into flames in London and shortly afterwards so did the Portuguese forests. It felt impossible to not connect them all – they were so vividly alive in my being. This summer in the Tsitsikamma there were no frogs to be heard. Normally the chorus from their countless cool little froggy throats is deafening in the evenings. I kept wondering why I was so aware of the sound of nightjars and it took me a while to realise that I was only hearing them because of the nocturnal frog silence. And this silence was because there was no water in the dam that usually erupted with noisy frog life at night. Dry, dry, dry – every drop of water monitored, every shower kept brief, a very serious drought.
Less than a month after I left there and returned to Portugal, mayhem erupted and my great friend and colleague had to flee her farm – the Knysna fires had sped rapidly along the tinder-dry coast in a massive storm. The word ‘forest’ here should read ‘pine plantation’.
When I was walking the dogs in the forest Jacques called and said ‘Sorry to alarm you but I can see a huge fire and it looks like it’s heading your way.’ I said ‘Jacques, I am in the forest and all is quiet’, but the wind was picking up quickly so I went home, calling Jethro on the way. He said he would go check, on his motorbike, and I had just got home when he called and said ‘Mom, pack your dogs and leave now!’ I was still trying to get pipes out to the borehole so I could wet the lawn if necessary.
Crazy to think that yesterday morning I was charging my iPad and walking my dogs in the forest, an hour before the fire screamed through. I left the farm thinking I may never see any of these ordinary things of my house again. I took my MacBook and my iPad and most of what was in my safe, hard drives, my work remedy cooler bag, a repertory and one materia medica, my bathroom bag, my down duvet, a pillow and clean underwear and a warm jacket, dog leashes and my handbag.
It was so apocalyptic I was glad to get out with my dogs.
Driving down the Robbehoek Road was bizarre, it was wind-storming and branches were flying around and pine trees were lying across the road. Then Gina called in a state saying she had stopped to help a mom and kids on the road, she had one child in the car when a roof blew off the building near her, crashing into the car and shattering both windows. She panicked and fled, with the child. When I came along a few minutes later I stopped just to tell the mom the child was safe, not abducted, and a group of big kids just started climbing into the front of the car. Jake went ballistic, I was holding him back, just barely, and shouting ‘get out get out’, the wind was howling, they were in a panic. I think Gina’s car had saved them from being annihilated by the flying roof. Chaos.
Jethro called to say ‘Sorry mom, your house is going, it is burning everywhere.’ He took out the gas bottles and diesel can and drove the bakkie up the driveway. Asked if he should flood my house to try and save it. I said I don’t know, no, forget the house just get out. There were 20m flames and the forest around his house was burning. He went to help Andrew to get the donkey and the horse out and Simon and his horses. We were frantic about him, he finally arrived after 10.00 pm having driven through huge flames both sides as the forest burned. He, Gina and I just sat and pondered the inevitable.
The fire ripped through the entire farm that night, as well as her son’s property nearby, burning everything in its wake. But … here are the miracles:
At 6.00 am Tanya called to say the impossible has happened, your house stands. Jethro called a bit later to say the same about his house but that it was all still burning, no power, all water pipes burned etc. and that he needed manpower. I borrowed pipe and a long lead and sped to fetch his team of workers.
I have been feeding helpers, dousing flames, getting water from a neighbour, treating burns and so exhausted can’t think now, will just send.
Oh and for some really great news, Yas and Andre’s baby girl was born last night / early this morning. Everyone is well!
Other neighbours were not so fortunate and lost their homes.
Photos © Dr Deanne Wilson
Photos © Gina Wayland
Two days later came the horrific news (amongst other horrific news) from London. So much has been written about Grenfell Tower that I shall only say listen to this, do this if you’d like to, and read this.
Three days after this I was alerted (by a friend in Dublin, via an early morning email) to the fact that there was an enormous fire burning in the mountains of central Portugal. Checking the map, I realised it was not so very far from the stone village which is sometimes home. I was in the very hot (43C!) Alentejo, in the south of Portugal. By that evening I was back in the village and less than an hour later we were advised to evacuate. I thought about my Tsitsikamma friend and her extraordinary presence of mind as she collected the things with which she would flee. I had come close to having to evacuate a home thirty years ago because flames were licking the walls of the house and what it had come down to then was saving the cats and dogs and my British passport. What flew into my shopping bag this time was my handbag, MacBook and charger, iPad and phone (minus the charger, which I forgot in my haste), mobile wifi router and charger, documents (including the passport), the not-yet-unpacked pared-down toiletries, and, somehow, the bathing costume I had used in an Alentejo public swimming pool the day before.
As we sped down the mountain in a friend’s trusty thirty-three-year-old Daihatsu that has travelled the length and breadth of Europe, it looked as if the very sky above the mountains behind the village could explode. No flames were visible but the light from the fires reflected up towards the dark smoke, suffusing everything below with an eerie yellow light. A friend in the town in the valley below gave us shelter for the night. We had no idea what would await us when we returned to the village the next morning.
The ominous sky above Coimbra at 5.00 pm on Sunday – smoke, not clouds
The village at 10.00 am on Monday – smoke, not mist
Covered in a fine layer of grey ash, the village was undamaged. I wore a damp scarf around my nose and mouth for most of the day. It was very hot, very still, but the smoke had thinned by evening. Some wind came up that night, heightening anxiety and making sleep almost impossible – the news from nearby was truly catastrophic. Sixty five people had died, many fleeing fire in their cars. I could not bring myself to look at the photographs. The story of a burned little girl found wandering alone at the side of a road was heartbreaking and evoked this for me. By the next day there was less smoke but more ash. That evening we were again advised to evacuate. I had not unpacked my emergency-departure bag and had brought it up to my friend’s standard by adding a change of clothes, a materia medica, some remedies, and the phone charger. I had removed the bathing costume.
Returning to the village next morning we were again relieved to find that all was well. Today the sky is free of smoke and the fires are out. Perhaps now the politicians will be forced to reassess their short-term, greed-driven forestry policies – cash cropping of eucalyptus has proved to be an environmental disaster all over the world. As with the Grenfell Tower inferno, how many people have to die in the name of greed? The ash has stopped falling and life carries on. But I do keep wondering at the strange synchronicity of it all.
It is now eleven days since the Tsitsikamma fire and the adrenalin has worn off:
Got John here cutting and clearing and I am so weepy today, it’s all suddenly overwhelming on so many levels. I can’t bear to see every tree that is burned and I know all the logical stuff, regeneration, renewal, etc. but I am just grief stricken.