Life is the fire that burns and the sun that gives light. Life is the wind and the rain and the thunder in the sky. Life is matter and is earth, what is and what is not, and what beyond is in Eternity. Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c.4 BC-AD 65)
As I’ve intimated in previous posts, we have successfully coexisted alongside the shadow of two things that could potentially destabilise us and threaten our very existence here. Both involve the cabin being razed to the ground, either by the powers-that-be, or by a forest fire. Neither of which we could actually do a lot about, which is why we made the decision to treasure each day and treat it as though it’s our last.
We were looking forward to a picnic down among our oak trees with our friends Horst and Deepani yesterday. They rushed in at one o’clock and alerted us to a cloud of smoke about 3km from us as the crow flies. It was coming from the area just above the road between our nearest village and Cómpeta, our nearest town.
The temperature was over 30 deg and the wind was in very strong gusts – absolutely ideal conditions for a forest fire. From the verandah we watched as a spotter plane and helicopter whizzed around, and within no time at all the flames shot up about twenty or so feet in the air, having found some nice pine trees to consume.
Where were the water helicopters? The fire was rising alarmingly quickly up the side of the valley. I know we proclaim to be philosophical about our fate here, but I confess to being somewhat anxious. What if there was a sudden change of direction in the already fluky wind?
It took a very long, nail-biting 38 minutes for the airborne assault to start. They take forest fires very seriously here, so I guess it must have taken that amount of time to scramble and fill up with water but unfortunately in that time the fire had really taken hold.
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” Nelson Mandela
Fortunately for us, but not for others as it turned out, the wind didn’t change direction, and we sat on the verandah, astounded at the rapidity of the drama unfolding such a short distance from our hilltop eyrie.
The sky was full of droning helicopters carrying water bombs, big amphibious aeroplanes that suck up massive quantities of water to dump as close as they could to the fire, and daintier little planes that sprayed huge clouds of red fire inhibitor. According to the news articles, there were some 19 aircraft tackling the blaze and, as far as we humble bystanders are concerned, each and every one of those pilots and crew deserve a medal for what they did yesterday.
Not just them, though. We couldn’t believe our eyes when the helicopters dropped crews of yellow overalled firefighters on the areas around the first fire-break, nearest us. They worked in a line to beat back the flames and as soon as some fires were put out, the fires started up elsewhere. It must have been so hot. There they were, alone on the mountainside, some 1,000m high, and there was nowhere to run if circumstances went against them. Apparently, during the whole operation, there were some 200 bomberos (fire-fighters) on the ground.
Between 500-600 people were evacuated from the higher areas around Cómpeta but all we could see at the time were the flames engulfing at least 5 properties, each time signalled by a tell-tale cloud of dense black smoke. Every time a new fire sprung up, it was almost immediately noted by ‘control’ and an aircraft was diverted to deal with it.
The sky was full of aircraft, and every two minutes or so one would drone along and disappear into the choking clouds. At times we could see the helicopters form a queue as they waited to collect more water from an area just behind our hill. One or two helicopters took water from the water deposit a few hundred metres away.
We finally had our picnic at the dining room table some two hours later than planned, grabbing bites of food while we continued to gaze out. I don’t think it was idle curiosity or ghoulish voyeurism, more a case of four property owners with a vested interest in the process and progress.
We didn’t know it at the time, but it was accorded a ‘level 1 alert” and the worst fire for 40 years. It was so gratifying, though (especially for people like us living in a wooden house), to see what a well-planned and coordinated operation it was.
By about 8.30pm, our guests had departed and the helicopters had stopped. But the bomberos on the high ground continued to beaver away at any suggestion of flame that might breach the fire break and endanger the rest of the Parque. When it got dark the wind intensified. We could see dozens of little fires all over the mountainside, many of them above Cómpeta, but on ground already exhausted and blackened. The bomberos carried on beating, their white head lights twinkling in wavering lines as they worked to safeguard the forest, our forest. They were still at it when we eventually got to bed, at around 2.00am.
As I write this, it is now 26 hours after the fire started. Although there was little evidence of smoke this morning, the helicopters had to make sure and it’s only now at 3.00pm they’ve stopped to-ing and fro-ing with their water bombs.
We have been saved. The majority of the Parque Natural has been saved. Due to the superhuman efforts of these very courageous men, Cómpeta and the surrounding villages have been rescued from utter destruction. There were no fatalities, apparently no injuries due to smoke inhalation, and the number of homes that were destroyed could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Of course, there will be huge damage to gardens and urban infrastructure and we don’t yet know how many hectares of forest have been ravaged, probably several hundred, but of course it will regenerate in time. What a success story for this brilliant team!
We know that we’re at risk living here, as any house would be. But the difference is that once the flames reach the cabin, it is likely to burn down – houses made of concrete will be massively damaged but not irredeemably so. But there are still more things that we can do to delay things until the fire teams can get here. As we’ve seen from what happens at a fire break when the flames rush towards it, they lose height and momentum immediately and therefore become less dangerous. To reduce the potential of sparks, the trees around our house need pruning at the top, especially the oaks, pines and arizonicas.
Other than that, we’re in the lap of the gods, and a pleasantly comfortable lap it is! We are only caretakers of this wonderful land after all.