Living in a Box…a Tinderbox

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That’s our house, and those others things are trees. Loads of the buggers.

PLEASE NOTE: This is not expert advice on the subject of wildfires. This is personal perspective only. Please seek professional guidance.

The subject of wildfires is a sensitive one at this time of the year, mainly it seems within the immigrant/estrangeiro population. Our local Portuguese village neighbours appear largely unconcerned by the frequent water planes flying overhead and distant (so far) plumes of smoke that appear on a regular basis. Someone told me that ‘the Portuguese grow up with fire’ and so perhaps are a little more accustomed to its presence than some of us. My only experience of wildfire in the UK was the car journey to my brother’s wedding in Wales in 1976 when I can vividly remember driving along roads in the dark with flames on either side. I was 8 and terrified.

There are many political issues relating to eucalyptus planting, unmanaged land and climate changes playing a part in the prevalence and scale of the fires in Portugal. I am new here and no expert and so will avoid postulating on something I know little about, but instead share our limited experience and perspective of choosing to live in an arguably high risk area for fire. Perhaps it helps you to decide whether its an OK place to live or somewhere you’d prefer to avoid. Knowledge is power, so they say.

A number of people have said ‘why move somewhere with that risk?’ The truth is that we didn’t know we had done so. Not a clue. We viewed our new home in April when all was fresh and green and although had been aware that in 2016 Central and Northern Portugal had experienced multiple fires, we didn’t put two and two together and worked out that this might be a regular thing and might affect us living in a forest. We had no idea how many fires can happen every day in Central Portugal. Coming from the Eastern Algarve where fire is still a worry but far more rare due to there being fewer people and fewer trees, I suppose, we had lived in relative ignorant bliss. We thought it was wet and cold up here. We moved in during late spring 2017 and within two weeks came the horrific and tragic fire around Pedrogao Grande. It was a rude awakening and a period of wondering if we had done something really stupid. It’s fair to say that had we known about the fires here we wouldn’t have bought our house in its specific location, but we would have been wrong. Things can seem scarier from the outside than they actually are.

Smoke on the horizon

We decided that the only way to live with this without sleepless nights, constant sky watching and anxiety was to get educated and get prepared. Please don’t take my word for what you are about to read – this is just how we have made our relative peace with the risk of fire, please take your own steps to find out what is best practice for your area and home.

The first thing is perspective. 500 people were killed on Portugal’s roads in 2016, 4 people were killed in fires. It seems you are safer in a forest in summertime than on your way to Continente. That isn’t meant to scare anyone, just to put the risk of fire into perspective compared with an activity which most people don’t consider scary or worrying.

There is information provided by the local Camara (council) giving guidance about safe zones around property which should be free of ground cover and waste. I believe that the Camara can be asked to force neighbours to ensure that land which adjoins your property is also free of ground cover, although how likely this is to be implemented in reality I cannot say. There is also guidance provided on Safe Communities Portugal  on prevention and protection and a fire safety pdf put together by Quinta Vale Verde whose home was damaged by the Pedrogao Grande fire. You can read their account of their terrifying experience on that day here. An insight into something that I would certainly not want to go through.

Fires

We were fortunate that the previous owner of our home had kept the area close to the house strimmed and clean and so we haven’t had much work to do to extend that and do some further chopping. We learned that broadleaf woodland (oak, chestnut) is more fire retardant than eucalyptus and pine. We have a lot of woodland which is mostly oak and pine and in order to find out how best to preserve it, we enlisted the services of Marko from the Awakened Forest Project to advise us. It is worth mentioning that Marko is not a fire expert; his advice was more generally on the reforesting of our land with more native tree species, which by its very nature decreases the fire risk. It also saved me a lot of work because I was expecting to have to rake 3 hectares worth of leaves from the woodland floor, which I now learn is not necessary or desirable. Happy days.

We spoke to our neighbours and looked for evidence of past fire on the land and discovered that there has only been one fire here in at least 25 years and that was a long time ago. We can see charred roots which have many years of new growth on them. This may mean we are in a somewhat protected position, or may just be luck.

We also planned our actions should a fire rear its head in our vicinity. By considering these things at a time of calm, hopefully we will make a better decision if the time comes. Again, you must make your own decisions based on your setting, level of nerve and circumstances.

  • We have deep water tanks and cellars – sometimes staying put is the safest thing to do if you don’t know what you are driving/walking into. Putting a ladder into the water tank and ensuring there is food and water in the cellar gives us options.
  • If faced with a passing wildfire when you are stuck in a car – you may be safer in the car than outside of it. Only if you know of a safe place to go should you leave your vehicle. This link gives detailed advice: http://www.wikihow.com/Survive-a-Wildfire-While-Trapped-in-a-Vehicle
  • We have identified four exit routes from our property, two only accessible by 4WD, another is through a eucalyptus forest and the final one is swimming/canoeing across a river. Depending on the location of the fire, we can make decisions about if and when to leave.
  • We now have blankets and large water carriers in our car along with an evacuation bag with clothes, drinking water, snacks, phone charger, money and basic toiletries.
  • There is a list inside the front door to remind us what we need to grab should we need to leave in a hurry.
  • There is also a note to be stuck on the outside of the front door in Portuguese informing the bombeiros that we have left and that the house is empty along with our names and telephone number – we are in a remote area and would be unlikely to be evacuated or notified and don’t want them to waste their time looking for us.

This may all sound like a terrifying way to live, perpetually waiting to grab your valuables and run for your life, but its actually had the opposite effect. By knowing that our home is as low risk as it can be and knowing that we have options for staying or going along with provisions to do so quickly, we now feel quite comfortable living in a tinderbox.

If you are looking for a house in a region known to have fires and it worries you, you may want to consider a few things when you go to view it, such as access in and out, type of trees around the area, any signs of recent fire (charred roots) and how easy it would be to keep the land clean.

It goes without saying that its not for everyone and that if being so close to so many trees fills you with terror and you find yourself yelling ‘I smell smoke’ every five minutes, then I’d choose somewhere else to live if I were you.

It’s been a while

 

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I’m sorry, it’s  been more than a year, which is pretty poor in terms of contact even by my standards. It’s why I only have friends who are as low maintenance as I am. I should have said that the main reason that I stopped sharing our nonsense here in this blog was that I was sharing it elsewhere; in Standard Issue magazine, to be precise. Is that infidelity? Perhaps. If so, I’m sorry, but that fabulous magazine is no more and so now I’m back. That’s a bit shitty now I think about it: I’m back for you because the much more important people no longer want me. Don’t take it personally. I thought about you every day (I didn’t). If you want to read what I’ve been up to, check out the Standard Issue link above, it’s all there.

Anyway, I’m here now and stuff has happened. We have moved! We no longer stalk geckos in the Algarve, now we stalk mongooses (it’s not mongeese – I looked it up. Mongoose and goose have different linguistic origins, actually) in Central Portugal.

I won’t bore you with all the details but in brief we decided to work in France over the summer as we found the Algarve too hot. Keith got a job as bicycle mechanic, we both got qualified as bicycle mechanics and First Aiders and then the whole project he was due to work for collapsed, so we drove 5 hours north in Portugal and bought a house. Because. We are now qualified bicycle mechanics who live up the steepest hill known to anyone with no one stupid enough to cycle anywhere apart from us.

 

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So, now we live in the middle of a forest in 3 hectares of land – that’s 28 times larger than our Algarve plot – in a granite, totally off-grid house (solar, mountain water and compost toilet) with a couple of stretches of the Mondego River thrown in. We are 3km down an off-road dirt track and require a 4×4 to reach our house up a 1:2.75 (20 degrees) slope, which we now own. For information: Owning a 4×4 has not made Keith any more manly, although I’m sure he thinks it has, which is all that matters. I certainly feel more manly. My ankles are killing me and we’ve only been here 2 months. Pushing a wheelbarrow full of mud up that  slope is only a very special person’s type of fun (we love it). I now have biceps, which may explain the manliness.

Our nearest cities are Coimbra and Viseu neither of which you will have heard of unless you are familiar with Portuguese geography, but both of which you should have heard of because they are both fabulous and entirely untouched by hen parties and Costa.

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We moved away from the Algarve because of the heat or the summer meaning that we were more inactive than we wanted to be, wanting more land to keep ourselves amused, physically knackered and alive in my case (see About – PKD is kept somewhat at bay by good health and managing blood pressure), and the potential for some future income in the form of tourist accommodation, which our Algarve house didn’t have. That’s right – one day you can come and stay with us in our humble abode but don’t expect us to be interesting, because we’re not. We are some way from the brand launch of our boutique hotel yet due to our single compost toilet perched halfway up the garden hardly being anyone’s idea of ‘en-suite’ unless you plan to sleep in it. We are undoubtedly ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘green’ given that everything that goes in that toilet will one day end up aiding the growth of a lettuce that we’ll serve our guests for dinner making sure that we share the provenance of their hor d’oeuvres just at the point that the first mouthful has reached their lips. Circle of life ‘n’ all that.

Please stick around. Keith can have 28 times more near fatal accidents with all this land. And you wouldn’t want to miss that now, would you?

 

 

Castro Marim on a Bicycle – one perfect day

Castro Marim on a Bicycle – one perfect day

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It was my final day in the Algarve. I would be leaving the next day for two weeks in England where the temperature is 14 degrees rather than 34 and where something called ‘rain’ is still occurring with frequency. So, what better excuse for a full day out on the bikes.

The 2nd Saturday of the month is Castro Marim market day, which is not vastly different to any other monthly market in the Algarve, but we particularly like Castro Marim; for its sleepiness, castles and the fabulous Medieval Days festival which take place each August. I am always astonished how such a small and sedate town can pull off such a brilliantly orchestrated event.

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We set off later than usual, as always full of good intentions and commitments to getting going before it gets too hot, but perpetually fail due to idleness, morning swims and lazy breakfasts on the terrace. It’s easy to slip into a slow pace of life when everything is just so damned good. We have recently taken to Instagram and so nowadays our every journey is punctuated by photo stops, where the ruined cottage is particularly picturesque and the flowers especially cascading. The usual route of choice is the Ecovia, a favourite place to cycle across saltpans and through quiet fields and trees, but today we are mavericks and took a turn off the N125 past Altura into the hinterland of Sao Bartholomeu towards Azinhal to sneak round the back, cut the corner of Vila Real and emerge in Castro Marim. It’s a lovely stretch of road for a bicycle – some undulation but nothing too painfully hilly. Whilst Keith loves the challenge of altitude with its steep climbs and death-defying downs, I prefer a more moderate terrain – too flat is dull and too much up and down is equally tedious. I’m not made for hills: I’m a plodder, a shire horse of the cycling world that can go on forever but not at great velocity.

Castro Marim on a Bicycle - 02 of 03 - RQ
Due to our typically tardy departure, we fortunately arrived in Castro Marim in time for lunch, which in the market is restricted to the limited menu of olives, bread and chicken straight from the grill. Although we eat little meat at home because we don’t feel the need, we have yet to take the full plunge into the veganism we feel to be a better way to live. To be honest, the existence of grilled chicken is not helping. We make verbal justifications about ‘protein’ and ‘energy loss’ due to cycling and we sit back and tuck in. I think I love this place because it reminds me of Morocco, which I also adore and almost lived in. Whilst taking in the smells, sights, singing and general atmosphere, we talk about how maybe, just maybe, the Algarve really is the perfect place for us. It has all the best of Europe with a dash of Morocco. We ponder whether we really could make the move further north, as we sometimes threaten to do in search of more (affordable) land and rain to make the growing easier. That’s for another day. Today we are glad to be here.

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And then it is time for the beach on our meander home. The Eastern Algarve coastal stretch from Vila Real to Manta Rota really feels like a secret. I almost expect people to be whispering and tiptoeing around, just in case anyone else should get wind of the place. Today we stop at Altura and its beach, Algoa, but anywhere along here would serve us just as well. The sand, the sea, the long, long convivial lunches in the seafood restaurants; the mood is peaceful rather than hectic. Having transported our parasols in our panniers like masts this far, it’s time to set up camp on the sand for a snooze and a swim and to make some vague post-lunch plans about 2 month cycle rides around Portugal and lengthy trips to the Azores. Everything feels possible today.

Home beckons as I have to pack and the garden needs a watering, so off we pedal; a little sandy, a little sore and a lot tired. We have covered 60km in the heat, sometimes helped and hindered by a strong northerly wind. The final 10km are the hardest; the climb back up into the hills is too much for me at times. I send Keith off to make his way home at his own pace and I walk and freewheel my way back, enjoying it all in the isolation of the empty serra roads. It seems that today I may have enjoyed myself for too long because as I made my final approach to Casa Torta, I was met by Keith coming the other way in the car, having become worried about my extended absence, he having arrived home 15 minutes before. I don’t know what he was worrying about, I was getting there. Maybe he needs to chill out a bit.