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After the Fire. A Walk in the (Very) Black Forest

Some of you reading this are “old hands” here in Portugal. You’ve seen forest fires and read about them, and put up with the wailing sirens, smoke and road diversions so long that another one is just ho-hum. But for Keith and me, the burning around Figueiró dos Vinhos during the first week of August 2015 was our first experience of a rapidly-spreading and potentially catastrophic conflagration. It was both shocking and fascinating.

One week after the last of 600+ bombeiros had departed, and the final helicopter had dumped its bag of water on all that sizzling wood and bush, we figured it would be safe for us to explore at close quarters. Being naturally inquisitive people, we wanted to know as much as possible about where fire had started and finished, what had burned (or hadn’t), and whether friends and properties in its path were all OK.

If you haven’t done such a post-fire walk, you might like to accompany us through the following photos (almost all by the talented man I married). There is nothing like tasting the acrid sting of smoke in your throat and seeing for yourself. But if you do go into the blackened forest, please be careful. Fire is a tricky thing that leaves traps for the unwary, and it doesn’t always die just because it’s invisible …

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For starters, here’s a map showing you roughly the area we’re talking about. As you can see, it stretches from the N236-1 downhill through Porto Negro to the N350, a main route to Pedrógão Grande. Fire crossed that road and continued uphill again. Based on what we observed on the day when we first spotted the fire’s smoke from our hilltop home base in Figueiró dos Vinhos, it moved roughly northeast to southwest – at times, pushed with remarkable rapidity by a stiff, gusty breeze.

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Parched grasses and small shrubs such as heather and cistus (rock rose) burned first. The deepest ash can be found in gullies where they grew, each funneling racing flames onward.

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Beyond the burnt area, native species provide valuable ground cover that encourages growth in cool root runs, maintains soil stability and retains essential nutrients.

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After a forest fire, the earth is baked hard and friable. All useful bacteria and fungi are dead, and the balance of life is destroyed.

Forest soils conserve nutrients efficiently. When cleared of vegetation, calcium and potassium losses (increase by) 20-fold; nitrogen loss is even higher, while the run-off quadruples in comparison with the previous forest.” – Hubbard Brook Test, USA 1965-66, quoted in Mediterranean Gardening by Heidi Gildemeister ISBN 84-273-0749-7

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Thousands of deep, burned-out rootcaverns wait to crumble under an unwary walker’s feetor to swallow a playing child.

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A blistered metal sign to Bouca de Figueira, a waste bin melted into a lolling black tongue of plastic, and trees bent as though shaped in a steam cabinet – all endured fierce temperatures.

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Thick, naturally fire-resistant bark of the cork oak saved this tree. Portuguese law supposedly “protects” quercus suber, but felling and “accidental” damage remain widespread.

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Eucalypts constantly build ‘bonfire heaps’ of shed bark. Fire aids them to spread and prosper, while decimating other species.

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Flames consumed utility poles and downed considerable stretches of telephone cables, but Portugal Telecom workers restored service just days after the fire. Impressive!

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Too close for comfort. Fire raged up to the roofline of this house and consumed the wooden deck.

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The bombeiros worked frantically, cutting trees as a firebreak to save the house above – and just succeeded. This time

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Orchards, vineyards and olive groves were lost, weeks before the harvest.

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Just one of the casualties: a charred lizard already gutted by ants. The burned forest is a silent place: no insects, no birds, no mammals – except us humans, looking at the mess our species makes over and over and over.

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One week on: the earth is still hot to the touch. Fires smoulder underground, following the roots. Above ground, there is plenty of dry material to consume. Flames could emerge anytime, anywhere.

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Winners vs. Losers: introduced species like the eucalyptus, grown in vast numbers for “easy money” actually enjoy fire, which eliminates the competition. Small trees and shrubs are gone, but larger gum trees have only superficial charring. Under the outer bark they are healthy, and the wood is still saleable, with a little cleaning. That’s something to celebrate if you grow eucalypts. For the rest of us – and Portugal itself, we are paying far too high a cost for forest fires.

We urgently need reform of forest planning and management laws including: 1) Incentives to replace eucalypts with alternative crops like chestnut, walnut and oak 2) Eucalypt plantation replacement with strip or mosaic planting of mixed broadleaf species; 3) More ‘nature reserves’ of native species – including shrubs and ground cover; 4) Penalties for owners who do not remove incendiary bark around eucalypts at least annually before every ‘fire season’.

Photos and text © Jude & Keith Irwin, Figueiró dos Vinhos, Portugal 2015. For permission to use any of this material email: proulxjude@gmail.com

To help promote native sustainable forestry as an alternative to eucalyptus plantations, join the facebook group Floresta Portuguesa Sustentável / Sustainable Forests for Portugal

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One thought on “After the Fire. A Walk in the (Very) Black Forest

  1. Thank you for posting this . We can not control the heat of the sun. We can not control natural disasters or the stupidity of irresponsible citizens who cause fires accidently …. but we can be more aware of the dangers of irresponsible forestry management … and we CAN try to control, regulate and review the way forests are planted and managed in fire hazardous regions. After this latest catastrophe the Portuguese people can only hope that regional , local and national authorities could collaborate to ensure that planning, infrastructure and safety measures were enforced to stop these fires from getting out of control and devastating the countryside that they devour year after year.
    Will this happen? I doubt it … Did the phoenix of mythology arise from the ashes?

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