Like every summer, from a distance, we follow the Madeiran news about bush fires. There are many eucalyptus trees on the island, and the leaves they drop are easy fuel for any spark dropped, incidentally or on purpose. We have had our share of bush fires in Fajã da Ovelha, and though some of them came pretty close, we have never been in real fear of losing our house.
Fighting bush fires in Madeira is extremely difficult, due to the island’s geography. Many valleys are surrounded by almost vertical slopes and have no road access. Consequently, fire fighting could really only be done from the roads, which meant that only houses were saved and the bush and forest were left to burn until the next rains finally extinguished the fire.
Fortunately, we now have a fire fighting helicopter on the island. The government has taken its good time to finally decide the helicopter should be there, first only during the summer months, but since the bush fires in Ponta do Pargo in early 2020, during the absence period of the helicopter, it is finally there all year round. This makes it possible to extinguish starting fires before they have had time to spread. Many minor fires have been successfully been put out since the arrival of the helicopter, proving that Madeira really needs such a device.
The initial reluctance of the regional government was in part understandable: the only unlimited water source is the ocean, and fighting fires with seawater is harmful for the environment. Since the arrival of the helicopter, this problem has been overcome by creating large fresh water reservoirs, which are filled in winter when there is usually enough rainfall. These reservoirs, combined with the already existing reservoirs used by the network of levadas, are now used by the helicopter when it is in action.
When we had already started to prepare our boat for winter before leaving for Madeira, the horrific news reached us that the island was on fire. Again. This time, an arsonist had started a fire in the neighbouring village of Prazeres. The island’s surface is bone dry after a long and hot summer, so the fire spread over a very large area, to the east as far as Arco da Calheta, and to the West as far as Ponta do Pargo, eventually even spreading to the higher areas of the neighbouring council of Porto Moniz. The fires occurred in so many places at once, that the one helicopter could not keep up and the fire has swept over large areas in the Southwest and West of the island. The fire fighters were already very tired after having fought earlier fires in Ribeira Brava and Ponta do Sol, so at last help was asked from Lisbon. Lisbon sent a large number of fire fighters and the army was deployed to help fighting the fires. After two very scary days, the fires were mostly under control.
This time, it was a close call. Fortunately, our house escaped – a narrow escape though – and at the end of last Thursday, Maria, who looks after our house and does the cleaning – called to tell us the house and the garden are okay, maybe the edges of the garden a bit scorched by the heat. There are worse things. Initially, the roads in the area were closed, a safety measure at first, later just to avoid a steam of curious visitors. But on last Saturday, friends went to inspect the house, and told us that everything is fine, water and electricity working, only no internet. It turned out that the whole village was without Internet and television, which is not surprising, as all lines are overhead and usually follow the roads, where often trees burnt down melting the wires. Our friends saw many telecom workers doing repairs, so even that was restored in only two days.
What is left behind is a scarred valley, a shocked but thankfully safe population and only one house – which was empty – lost in the flames. One building that was not so lucky was the old butter factory standing at the bottom of our valley. The building had been in a bad state of disrepair already, since a tree fell on the roof two years ago and though the owner said repairs were planned, nothing happened since. When the undergrowth on the steep slope above the building caught fire, burning twigs and fern fell through the roof, setting the wooden floor on fire, destroying wat was left of the interior. The walls are still standing, and will probably soon be covered in ivy and brambles to make for a picturesque ruin.
We know that most of the bush fires were lit on purpose. There may be many motives for arsonists. They may be economical, as was probable with the 2020 fires in Ponta do Pargo, or emotional, as was the case this time. The arsonist was caught red-handed when he was trying to set fire to his own house. Turned out he had conflicts with his entire neighbourhood and had threatened to set the lot on fire. He did just that, and the fire spread to the whole council. Finally, he wanted to light his own house when he was caught by investigators who already suspected arson. In many other cases – there were 33 cases of arson filed this past year – the motives will probably never be known. Sometimes it’s just negligence, when people try to use fire to clean their agricultural plot, sometimes it’s a cigarette thrown out of a car, sometimes it’s a pyromaniac finding his joy in starting a fire. It happened, and it will happen again. You can’t fight an idiot, but you can try to educate people to at least avoid future negligence and make people think before risking a fire. We can now only pick up the pieces and get back to our lives.
We have to look around us in the world before over-dramatising these events. The fires are horrible, but not necessarily bad for nature. The ashes are fertilizers and often, diversity improves after a fire. On the other hand, let’s look at what is happening in Ukraine and in Israel and the Gaza Strip, where many people have lost their lives, and many others lost their homes and livelihood. Or the recent earthquakes in North Africa, where the same things happened to the people. They are the ones with the real problems. I know, some people have lost crops, cattle needs to be fed hay because the grass burnt down, but next season it will all grow back and life goes on. We still have our house. We still have the ocean view the goes on forever. The valley may be burnt in many places, but we know that nature will soon pull a green veil over everything. Today, the rains have made a cautious reappearance and the green grass will soon start growing again. So let’s stop complaining, clear away the mess wherever possible and look forward to next spring that will bring new life.
We are travelling back to Madeira at the end of this month, and we will update this article with some relevant images once we are there.