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.