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When the Forest Burns

In this world of “bucket lists” prioritising things to see and do before we die, there are a few dramatic scenes one never wishes to see.

One is a forest fire practically on your doorstep.

It is August in Portugal – prime holiday time, but also the danger zenith of the forest fire season. Everything is tinder dry. While the firefighters of Rocky, California slog on against a blaze engulfing 90 square miles, other smaller but no less frightening Mediterranean region conflagrations gobble up the maquis of Provence, the woodlands of northern Spain, and now, the moor-like garrigue and forests of parts of central Portugal, where we live.

Last week, we watched while plumes of grey smoke and ash climbed the sky 30-40 km to the east, above Pedrógão Grande.

Fires swept along slopes just beyond the hilltop enfilade of giant windmills whose silhouettes march horizon-wide along the ridges.

That fire was far enough away from us not to give great concern, though we all silently willed the firefighting volunteer bombeiros (bomba means ‘pump’) to stay safe.

Their constant training for this unenviable, searing challenge got them through the day. They brought the fire under control, and by sunset, when the customary breeze picks up, all one could see on the skyline was a lingering veil of pale smoke masking barely-crackling embers. We fell asleep quietly that night. But maybe not tonight.

At about 14:00 hours on August 6, 2015, we sat down for lunch at our patio table as usual. We heard the fire siren but scarcely glanced up from our food. Drills can and do take place at any time, after all. It is not unusual to be awakened at two a.m. – along with every yapping dog in the area – by a piercing wail. The siren’s long, gently rising and then falling note never fails to cause me a shiver. It recalls WWII air raids, as heard in documentary films of the London Blitz, and the ‘head for the shelters’ alarm that sounded during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when everyone in America seriously expected a nuclear attack. One never forgets the siren’s sound, or what it could mean.

And this lunchtime, it really meant what it said: FIRE ! I looked left and noticed a fairly insignificant-seeming column of dove grey ascending from the trees a couple of kilometers distant. Not more.

Someone else had seen before I did – probably an attentive warden watching from the platform of the fire tower just a few hundred meters above our rental cottage. The reservoir tanks are up there, too, and the heli-pad with its bright yellow helicopter landing next to one of the small bombeiros buildings that are dotted around. I’ve jogged through this patch and we’ve blackberried a few times up there. It’s our “backyard”, and we’re glad someone is keeping an eye on the landscape nearby – today more than ever.

Within seconds of the alarm call, we heard the scream of the first fire truck heading along the road, and watched its boxy frame loaded with ladders and hoses disappear behind the far buildings.

The clamour died remarkably suddenly. That’s when we knew just how close the fire really was. Too close for comfort.

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Keith went inside for his camera, and together we watched in growing amazement as the profile of the smoke plume rapidly changed and spread. Each time some of the oil-rich eucalypt canopies ignited, a greasy black cloud boiled up like a volcanic eruption. More and more fire trucks streaked out of Figueiró dos Vinhos toward the front lines, trailing a Doppler-drop lament in their wake. One, then two helicopters began making runs from the reservoir above us to the flames, each time scooping up, then dropping, a quarter of a ton or so of water from their bags and skimming back for more again and again. I timed one round trip from empty bucket at the edge of the fire to a full one on return.

Exactly one minute. Those pilots are earning their money today.

Fixed-wing planes appeared. One, then two and finally three mustard-yellow craft circled and banked through the murky swirls that rose and bellied outward. We thought at first they were just spotters, relaying information to ground teams about any changes they observed in wind direction or the need to evacuate local homes. But eventually, we saw one drop a thick wedge of something – dry chemicals? – at the leading edge of the fire, maybe trying to rob the fire of oxygen. By looking closer, with the aid of his camera zoom, Keith determined that the planes are actually all flying boats, capable of swooping down to the nearby dammed portions of the Rio Zezere to slurp up pontoon loads of water, then releasing them wherever tongues of flame licked toward fresh fuel.

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Two hours later, the fire is still burning, spreading east. Sometimes it seems it is all under control. Then a vast, black, oily cloud belches up, and we see the powerful updrafts sucking grey ash skyward in a tower, with a tell-tale orange glow reflecting back at the heart of the boiling mass.

A “Natural” Disaster?

Some might say this is a “natural disaster”. But that’s only fractionally true. In a very real sense, this kind of fire – or at least the landscape that gives birth to it and feeds it, is very much a man-made problem.

For a start, there is the fact that highly-flammable species – gums and pines – dominate. There are almost no native species left in these forests; most were wiped out in the 19th and early 20th centuries. See this excellent article by an Ozzie journalist:

https://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2013/june/1370181600/michaela-mcguire/eucalypt-invasion-portugal

Foreign wars and eventual loss of their African colonies in the 1970’s made Portuguese leaders desperate for revenue, so the Australian mimosa or wattle and gum trees introduced by the likes of Sir Joseph Banks to reduce erosion 200 years before were now encouraged with subsidies. The aim: to make money for tax payers and raise government revenues as fast as possible.

Today, both acacia/wattle/mimosa and eucalypts are a menace, and are totally invasive, driving native species to the brink. Native cork oaks are protected by law, but not always in fact. They should not be felled (but they are, and we have evidence). These noble “sobreiros” are dwindling both in numbers and commercial value as wine bottles are increasingly stoppered with plastic. Money, it seems, is all that matters. The value of beauty, shade and pleasure are unfortunately never “assessed”.

Vast eucalypt plantations now cover about 7% of Portugal. The environmental damage stays at home, but most of the real profits go elsewhere. Scandinavian paper companies own huge tracts and harvest their “crop” every 10-12 years, either allowing natural regrowth from the roots or replanting the same species over and over. This monoculture has depleted natural aquifers, impoverished many rural agrarian communities and destroyed biodiversity. A woodland of native oaks, poplars and other deciduous trees can support up to 80 different species of plant. In a silent, essentially barren eucalypt forest, almost nothing else can grow. There are few insects, because there’s not enough to eat.

You hear no birdsong for the same reason.

The native cork oak, a warty, wiggly, gorgeous tree, wears a naturally fire retardant hide, as seen below, generally harvested every 10 years. Planted in strips and groves around villages, it can halt or dramatically slow the advance of forest fires, as it slow chars, rather than igniting. We intend to replant baby oaks sprouted under our “mother tree” to other forest-side locations to keep our future house safe. Or at least safer.

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Another man-made cause of forest fires in Portugal is the crude and heedless manner of harvesting. Eucalypts, pines, Portuguese cypresses (Cupressus lusitanica was actually introduced from Mexico) and other species are cut either industrially or for domestic fuel. Small branches are scraped off the main stems and left behind willy-nilly atop the deep heaps of gum tree bark that is naturally shed like sloughed-off skin in huge quantities annually.

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Year after year, inflammable debris piles up on the forest floor: cones, bark, branches, leaves and needles. Yet with a small amount of imagination and a modest outlay for chippers, this could all be transformed into useful dry mulch or pellets to fuel increasingly popular home or industrial heating systems.

Government grants to “clean up” after logging would reduce fire risks significantly and spur the formation of micro-businesses that would also increase the SME tax base. Pellet mills on small and large scale already exist, and Portugal exports a significant tonnage of such pellets to markets in northern Europe already. So what’s stopping this scenario from happening? And why, in the face of the real and present dangers of forest fires – which plague the whole Iberian peninsula, doesn’t somebody speak out loud and make change happen? Could it be that “the status quo” lines the right pockets very nicely, thank you? Devil take the ecosystem.

By August 2015, more than 500,000 hectares of land – forest and field – have been incinerated in Portugal. Sixteen bombeiros have died, leaving grieving families and communities. And 47 arson suspects have been questioned so far.

Every fire carries a heavy cost. Devastation of the land, ugly scars that take decades to heal … loss of lives and livelihoods. In a country already struggling under high taxes and low per-capital income, who can afford the onerous outlays for more planes, more fire trucks, more reservoirs, more of everything it takes to put these fires out? And this summer, rains have been almost non-existent, so more fires are predicted.

Doesn’t it make simple common sense to do as much as possible to prevent them? Instead of replanting eucalypts, why not replace them with trees like oaks, walnuts and sweet chestnuts – each offering two “crops” for the price of one?

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Yes, they grow more slowly, but until they mature, pigs fatten on acorns and yield delicious presunto hams. Chestnuts and walnuts can be exported whole or made into flour or oil respectively. The wood of all nut-producers is prized – rightly – for timber and fuel.

And these beautiful, shade-giving trees also help to improve even the most played-out soils by depositing layers of leaf litter full of useful bacteria and fungi. They also host hundreds of birds, plants and insects, plus recreational groves full of grace and spiritual uplift we all need.

Everyone agrees fire prevention is “vital”. But this mantra is honoured more in small talk and politicians’ speeches than in action. What will it take before the government of Portugal bans mass-monoculture plantings and clear felling of entire mountainsides with resultant erosion that washes valuable topsoil down to the sea? Why can’t Scandinavian and Portuguese land owners be required to plant gum tree crops in strips, with broadleaf and conifer forest between these stands? It works well in other countries, and allows natural regeneration of varied species on the cleared area. Finally, how long will it be before (mostly casual subcontractor) loggers are correctly trained and supervised to take a different approach i.e. clean up after they cut, chip their waste and convert it to saleable mulch, pellets or chipboard?

Most forest fires like the one still burning near our home in central Portugal are not the inevitable forces of nature we have been taught. They are the obvious results of carelessness, greed, arson, ignorance, poor resource management and short-term thinking.

With a few exceptions, such as lightning strikes, these fires do not have to happen.

Postscript: The fire continued into the small hours of the next day painting a lurid orange glow against the sky nearly 90 degrees away from where it started.

We took a spin out next morning to inspect the area around our land in Carameleiro on the outskirts of town, then drove east on the N236 and soon encountered the bombeiros en masse – seemingly at a de-briefing session. There were gleaming firefighting trucks and special units there from all around the region: Torres Novas, Entroncamento, Leiria, Almerim, Santarém – even Nazaré and Óbidos on the coast two hours away.

Wildfires continued to flare up for another two days – it is Sunday August 8 now, with a high, gusty wind that whips the smallest spark into life and drives fingers of fire alarmingly fast along a path of any combustible material.

Yesterday, we climbed the hill above our rental to watch firefighting helicopters taking on bags of water. It was impressive and a little worrying watching them skim only feet from the pine trees, hover for a few seconds to let the bag sink into a small square tank and then rise for another journey to the flames.

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We’ve spoken to locals about these fires. One suggested that most are deliberately started – sometimes as “revenge” against a neighbouring landowner or some authority. He cited the case of a man stopped by the G.N.R. (police) for a driving offense, who then torched the forest near their station; that blaze engulfed thousands of hectares and killed five firefighters.

Others shrug and comment that the private firms involved in providing firefighting equipment “help their sales” by starting fires from time to time. And they mention that there are higher rates of pay for the bombeiros if they can “keep themselves busy” for at least four days at a time.

The truth is seldom plain or uncomplicated. Human motives are as convoluted as goat tracks through the bush. I am simply baffled every day by the question: “Why is it so hard to get people to understand and accept that what is good for the preservation of the natural ecosystem is also good for us?”

Until next time, that’s “Life in Portugal”

Jude & Keith Irwin
Figueiró dos Vinhos

Facebook Group “Floresta Portuguesa Sustentável / Sustainable Forests for Portugal

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