Fairfax Media journalist Caleb Cluff was caught in the middle of a disaster when fires swept through central Portugal in June. He shares his experiences here..
It was the second plume of smoke, to our east, or slightly north-east, that got our attention. Bruise purple, it looked enormous, like a black thundercloud swirling up over the farm.
My wife and I are finishing the third week of our stay with ex-pat Australian friends, Shiralee Saul and John Bleaney, at their home near Figueiró dos Vinhos in central Portugal. Their quinta, or small farm of a few hectares, is in the Leiria district of the country. The tiny hamlet of Figueira sits about 700m up a steep hill from them; the slightly larger town of Nodereinho another 500m on from that.
Saturday, June 17 was another in a series of hot days in the region. At around 2pm it was 40 degrees Celsius, and still. We take turns at plunging into the swimming pool, then retreating to the grapevine-covered trellis of our cottage. Reading, listening to fado, the traditional Portuguese songs of fate and longing. Eating oranges and cheese.
In the distance a siren, like an air-raid warning sounds. It’s the call for the bombeiros, the Portuguese volunteer firefighters, to attend their respective stations. There is a fire. To our west a single thin plume of grey-white smoke spirals into the sky. It’s a long way off by our calculation. Behind us, the second plume is of more concern. We dry ourselves and put on heavier clothing - moleskin trousers, a linen shirt, boots. Hoses are laid out.
It seems a reasonable precaution. John and Shiralee’s home Casinha da Bouca had come near to destruction just two years earlier, when a fire swept through the vast eucalypt and pine plantations surrounding it. At that time the bombeiros had come around, evacuating people as the fire approached.
There are no bombeiros this time. They are already engaged in a terrible fight against an unprecedented firestorm.
The eucalyptus industry and the death of farming in Portugal
The way of life in the central and northern farming regions of Portugal has long relied on terracing in the hills. The land, which would otherwise be harsh and unproductive because of the steep terrains, has over centuries been latticed with stone terraces, back-breakingly constructed by hand across the valleys. With each rainfall soil is washed into the terrace, creating a horta, a small area of productive soil suitable for growing oaks or olives, corn or cherry trees or couve tronchuda, the ubiquitous Portuguese cabbage.
As recent generations have abandoned small villages in the face of economic depression and European Union-induced austerity measures, these terraces have been leased or sold to timber interests, who plant them primarily with fast-growing Tasmanian bluegum eucalyptus crops.
Many of these companies are based in Scandinavia. They use Portugal as a cheap source of land to grow the bluegums, which are planted thickly - often only 30cm apart. The trees grow quickly and tall. They are harvested every seven or 12 years, largely for pulp to make toilet paper.
The trees are known as ‘the green desert’. They have lowered the water table in the region with their voracious need for moisture. Wildlife and native species of trees and flowers are conspicuously absent wherever they are grown. Corrupt local councils ignore the regulations that specify setbacks for planting and safety. The trees are grown up to the edges of roads, in clear breach of safety guidelines. They are planted in creekbeds and drainage culverts. Over 7 per cent of Portugal is now covered with eucalypts.
The Portuguese environmental group Quercus has waged a long fight, some 40 years, against the proliferation of the gum tree, but the vested interests of the paper companies and the dire financial situation of the nation as a whole means there is little will to curb or even regulate the industry.
Driving to dinner
At around 6.30pm on the day of the fire, I suggest we go to dinner at a nearby restaurant. It’s been a stiflingly hot day, and it’s too oppressive to cook. We drive to the top of the hill behind Casinho da Bouca. It’s a steep climb in low gear up a dreadfully-maintained dirt road, pitted with ruts and pieces of dead pine still falling from to years earlier.
At its summit, just over the lee, is the tiny village of Figueira; ‘Fig tree’ in English. We stop to see where the smoke is coming from. It’s curling up from the town of Pedrogao Grande, almost 16km east. To our eye it looks contained, much less threatening than earlier in the afternoon. We decide it’s safe to go to dinner, and drive through the narrow streets of Figueira, onto the CM1169-1, a local road that passes under the IC-8 freeway and into Nodeirinho. It’s Saturday evening, quiet. My last vision of Nodeirinho is of a local woman quietly looking at her horta, neatly lined into its constituent crops. She casts an eye up to the smoke on the horizon as we drive up the M513 through the middle of the eucalypt plantations, before merging onto the N236-1 to get to the IC8 and our destination, Aldeia da Cruz, just three or four minutes down the road.
The tiny restaurant A Briosa serves traditional Portuguese dishes. We have a kind of haggis, served with a jug of vinho verde, the ‘green wine’ of the region. It’s low in alcohol and slightly sparkling. Sitting in the rear annex of the restaurant, we eat quietly. Looking at the hills behind us, a sudden mass of reddish-black cloud looms up. Ash and embers begin to fall, and the sky darkens suddenly. We make our way quickly to pay for our meal to leave, hoping to get back to the farm. The restaurant’s owner looks at us worriedly.
“It’s very bad,” she says.
There are no apps, no warnings. We hear fire and police vehicles screaming past on the freeway above the restaurant. As we drive up onto the freeway, a Guardia Nacional Republicana (GNR) police officer waves us in. He speaks rapidly in Portuguese.
“Lamento,” I say. “Voce fala Inglese?” “I’m sorry. Do you speak English?”
“Get out,” he says. “There is no way here. Everything is gone. Go to Pombal.”
Behind him the hills have erupted in massive flames and all-encompassing smoke. Inside the inferno is the N236-1, the road we had just come down. It’s blocked with burning trees and choked with destroyed cars. People fleeing the sudden wall of fire from nearby Castanheira de Pera, trying to get to the perceived safety of Figueiró dos Vinhos, have ploughed into each other, into guard rails and the fallen trees. They are all dead, piled on the road where they abandoned their burning cars.
Meeting Sara and Duarte
We meet Sara and Duarte Antunes the Sunday before the feast of Corpus Christi at a cafe-bar in their hometown of Adega, a kilometre or two from Figueira. They run a small restaurant where Duarte and a partner specialise in Portuguese traditional recipes, using local ingredients and focussing on quality. Sara is celebrating her first year of teaching yoga. They’ve just finished work for the day and the cafe-bar is heavy with cigarette smoke. Sagres beer bottles, a popular brand, are spread over the table. We are given sardines and caracoles, the Portuguese version of snails cooked with garlic. Horse and soccer paraphernalia line the walls.
Duarte Antunes is a big man with a black beard and dark eyes. He smiles readily and speaks good English, like many Portuguese. Aside from the restaurant, he makes a living landscaping and clearing fire hazards such as bracken each summer. We talk about many things: the appeal of Vespa scooters despite their inherent imbalance due to engine placement; his WWII Jeep; the widespread planting of eucalypts in the district and the damage they are doing to ecology and traditional ways of life.
“You are from Australia, man,” he says. “There must be some bugs you can send us to get rid of these trees.”
Sara Antunes is slender with dark hair and two or three dreadlocks. She laughs a lot, a booming laugh. She laughs about the time she tried to ride a bicycle after a few drinks and couldn’t stay upright. About our attempts to speak Portuguese. Life generally pleases her, and she is inseparable from her cousin, also named Sara, who delights in calling us by our first names.
“Boa tarde, Cal! Boa tarde, Tiffany!”
There is much good-natured ribbing of Ruis, Sara’s boyfriend, who has purchased a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and is wearing club leathers. He takes Sara for a ride on it while the rest of us talk and eat and drink. It comes time to leave, and I ask Duarte how much we owe him. He looks at me seriously.
“€100,” he says, deadpan. “For the authentic Portuguese experience.”
I must have blinked. He bursts out laughing. “Get out,” he says. “Who cares what the cost is? It all works out.”
He invites us to the feast day the coming Thursday.
“It is the feast of the body of God, or something,” he says. “But it is a celebration for us.”
Falling back in the face of the blaze
As the fire races along the ridges, we drive down the IC8 to a small town called Aguda, where we stop to assess what we have with us - which is largely our phones and wallets. People are gathered outside the Cafe Retiro, making frantic calls to relatives and friends. Another GNR vehicle pulls up. It’s time to move again; the fire is gaining ground on us.
We try to contact Duarte, but the telephone line breaks up. We understand he is fighting the fire, but little else.
In Avelar, a freguesia or parish municipality of the larger town of Ansiao, we rest at a cafe for a Sumol Laranja, a popular carbonated orange juice drink. It’s a surreal moment. In the town square, a man with a dancing goat entertains children. Inside the cafe, men drink beer and watch television. There’s a soccer match on. It seems everyone is oblivious of the approaching fire. I use Twitter to alert media organisations of what is happening, as news coverage is so limited.
The sky turns black, night-dark, and embers scatter around the garden of the square. The church bell rings endlessly. It’s now about 9pm.
John calls friends in Ansiao, just up the road. Sarah Beach and David Allen have an annexe with two beds and some blow-up mattresses we are welcome to use. They run a shelter for abandoned dog, nearby and are trying to get the dogs to safety as the fire approaches. At this stage Sarah, a former corporate CEO, is running a Facebook page that is providing the best information about what is happening with the fire. The bombeiros site has collapsed under the weight of requests. David meets us at the local supermarket where people fleeing the fire are meeting. We begin to hear stories of other people’s lucky escapes, of lost homes and friends missing. It’s clear the fire is disastrous.
We sleep very little, despite being exhausted. It’s hot, and we stink of smoke and sweat. And the fire is just a few kilometres away. It’s 3am before the house falls quiet. In the morning my telephone rings constantly. The BBC have seen my tweet and want to do Skype interviews for television and radio. I write a lead for The Courier and send a few pictures.
David breaks the news to us. Figueira and Nodeirinho, Adega and the outskirts of Figueiró dos Vinhos have been caught in the direct line of the fire. There are many more dead than first reported. The two Saras are among them. We have no words. We sit and stand in the yard, silently. The sun blazes.
The feast of Corpus Christi
A Portuguese feast, secular or religious, involves a lot of food, wine, laughter and tears.
The afternoon of the Thursday before the fire, we gather at Duarte and Sara’s home. There is a covered pavilion constructed just for the day, which is as much a celebration of Sara’s first year running her yoga classes as it is of anything to do with the body of Christ.
The men are busy grilling chicken over a homemade barbeque constructed of truck rims. Sara leads a yoga session for her students in the shade of the pavilion. Some of the ex-pat guests gather to talk about the heat, about their homes and what they are doing.
During the meal I sit next to Duarte’s mother, who has made much of the food. She lives nearby in Nodeirinho, and does not own a car. Her food is magnificent, and there is a white form of sangria, sangria blanco, that is slightly sweet and matches the chicken exquisitely. My Portuguese is minimal. Her English is the same, but we agree through gesture on the quality of the feast, which will run long into the night.
Sadly we must leave early. There are chickens and ducks back at the farm to be fed, and vegetable gardens to be watered.
It is the last time we will see of some of the guests at the feast.
We are prevented from returning to Figueira until the Monday morning by the fires ringing Ansiao. We drive out and down through the town. The fires have moved north, and Avelar will remain under threat for some time.
The roads are empty on the drive back. Everything is burned. The pine and eucalypt forests are stripped bare, soil blackened. There is very little smouldering. The smoke is thick in the still air.
John and Shiralee have received word that their houses are safe, although everything around them has burned - their vegetable hortas, their trees. We drive into Figueiró dos Vinhos. The town is safe at its centre, but as we head into the encircling farm areas, burned houses and hortas materialise. It’s 8km to the farm, along a winding road marked by steep ravines and hills. One section will be burnt black, the next untouched. Telephone and electricity lines lie tangled on the roadsides.
Reaching the house, we find how close the fire has burned. The gardens are black, but their car, a 1990s Fiat, has survived, ringed by a singed circle of grass. The windstorm accompanying the fire has torn through the housh, scattering ash, tearing pictures down and smashing ornaments. A door on the upstairs balcony has been ripped from its jam and hurled to the ground below. Remarkably, not a pane in it is broken. But the animals are safe. The nervy Indian runner ducks, with their ridiculous stereotypical duck features, quack loudly. Their beloved cats are waiting. We take stock. Nothing is burning, but we now need to make sure we have escape routes. And we need to check on the people in Figueira. We have been lucky.
We take axes and saws and begin the steep climb up the road to Figueira. Burnt trees are scattered in our path like pick-up sticks. They are mostly long and slender, burned off at the base. We cut and form great piles of them on the road side. It takes us an hour to get up 700m.
In Figueira, the damage is immediately visible. One four houses is burned or damaged, perhaps one in three. The fire has forked around the town, and properties on the edges have suffered worst.
Outside her home, Dona Estrela, a widow in her 70s, sits on her low kitchen stool, crying. It appears her house is safe, but she has lost her income to supplement the miniscule Portuguese pension. Her vegetable hortas, her chickens, ducks and turkeys, and her goats are all lost. To poor regional Portuguese, these things represent not only an income but also their daily food. To have lost them is a disaster for her. We offer our insufficient condolences as best we can.
Next door, the son of Don Eduardo is clearing the remains of dead poultry and sheep. His tiny hunting dog lies panting on the ground, suffering from heat exhaustion, but the man is more interested in showing us into his shed. During the fire he has managed to uncouple his 55HP Ford tractor from its trailer and save it by getting it inside. This is a major achievement. Investing in machinery is possibly the greatest expense these people will ever make, and a tractor is very expensive indeed. There are many tractors and rotary hoes lost in the fire.
Down the street another retired couple stand on the balcony of their home. It’s covered in tiles and untouched by the devastation, but they are weeping and point to the burned out building across the road. It’s the home of British ex-pat and friend of John and Shiralee, Danny Starling.
We had sat with Danny at Duarte and Sara’s feast. A former printer, he makes his living moving furniture and working online in order to supplement his income. As the fire raged through on the Saturday, he decided to flee in his small Fiat. The weeping couple have seen its burned shell on the television.
“Danny é morte!,” they cry. “Danny is dead!”
But Danny is not dead. He has miraculously escaped.
As the fires crashed into his partially renovated building, Danny Starling decided he would not survive and decided to flee.
He drove out of Figueira into Nodeirinho, flames tearing across the roads around him. As he entered the town he found a family of four standing on the road, terrified. He gathered them into the Fiat.
"We stopped at one point, because we did not know where to go, because there were flames everywhere. But I just carried on the only way that I knew. (It was) just flames over the car and the family and me screaming,” he said at the time.
Somehow they managed to find a GNR officer at an intersection, who ushered them into his diesel vehicle.
"The family got out and they were kissing the car,” said Danny. It was one of a number of miraculous escapes we began to hear about.
Another British expat, ‘Digger’ Dave James, drove into the smoke and flames in Nodeirinho, trying to escape. He struck “something” on the road - “I don’t know what” - and was forced from the vehicle. Now caught in the flames, a family called him into their home, where they “lay screaming on the floor” as the firestorm passed over them. His partner also somehow survived, running ahead of the flames with her dogs after abandoning a separate car in the forest. Other climb into a concrete water tank, a perilous but seemingly unavoidable choice.
Dona Laura is not five feet tall. She has lost an eye, and walked 20km to have a knee replacement fitted - then walked 20km home again. She is 77, and live in a ramshackle house in Figueira’s main street. She may own a couple of other buildings; it’s hard to be sure.She farms her hortas meticulously, arranging them in perfectly straight rows of vegetables.
We meet her consoling another woman, whose home looks outwardly secure. Inside the villa gate we see the entire rear of her home is burned. She sits inside the gate, weeping, while Dona Laura talks to her. Unflinchingly resolute, she tells the woman many other people have suffered more.
Her home has an array of pots and bit and piece arranged outside it, including a broken car mirror that may serve to reflect evil spirits. Her home has survived, largely because, as Dona Laura tells us, she “threw water at it.”
In the village of Nodeirinho, smoke and silence are our companions as we walk through the streets. Bird calls occasionally pierce through. The horta I last saw as we drove through on Saturday night is blackened, its owner nowhere to be seen.
Eleven people died here. Most were trapped in vehicles trying to escape. We walk the streets. Gutted houses are everywhere. A pet dog lies dead, caught by its chain, swollen and scorched. The house where it lived is destroyed. The police haven’t had time to check these buildings for further victims, as the fire rages further north. It will be two days before they start their inspections.
This is where our friends died, trying to save relatives. Caught on the road, they stood no chance as the firestorm curled around from both sides, engulfing the village. We walk slowly from house to house on the edge of town. Almost all are burned out. Olive groves stand charred, the centres of trees burned completely away. An old dog with a huge growth on its neck follows us, panting. We find a broken dish and give it water.
A roadside altar stands in the blackened mess. The fire has killed its attendant plants and scarred the front, licking at the grill protecting the porcelain statues of Christ and the Madonna inside. A plaque on the front says the altar had been rebuilt by Verjilio Coehlo, ‘a native of this place’.
Now many of the natives are dead. It will remain to be seen if the survivors have the will to rebuild.