In midsummer’s heat, with veranda windows open all night, early morning is the coolest part of day at our house in the Alto Minho region of Portugal. It's just coming light when I walk down the steps into the jasmine scented air of the courtyard where a light breeze sets hanging baskets creaking, but it's not cool for long. By eight o'clock, the sun is already high, bleaching the terrace with concentrated heat and light. In the air, large stripe-winged butterflies glide to and fro whilst giant bumblebees and a species of flying beetle we call helicopter gunships blunder their way through the atmosphere, as if it were an obstacle course. By lunchtime, the heat is becoming unbearable.
Amongst the Portuguese, the region is treasured for its green fields, clean, fast-flowing streams, and high growing vines producing the semi-sparkling Vinho Verde. Nobel Prize winning novelist José Saramago describes in Journey to Portugal what anyone lucky enough to be traveling in the region becomes aware of: “The ceaseless murmur which has been accompanying him since the (Ponte de) Lima Bridge, the sound of waters tumbling over hillocks and down ditches in search of a stream to flow into Early 20th century prints of travelers, in green felt hats with feathers in the band and stout walking boots, bespeak to the Portuguese what the Lake District means to the English or the Black Forest to Germans.
What first struck me was the small scale of everything: narrow winding roads, small plots of land, little farms, like toy sets, and minute water mills straddling narrow streams, plunging between banks of broad-leaved pumpkin plants spotted with yellow flowers. It's the sort of place J.R.R. Tolkien might have had in mind when he invented the Shire. Seeking safety during The Great War, Cubist painter Sonia Delaunay and husband, Robert, lived in Valença do Minho. Delaunay’s work was known for her use of strong colors and geometric shapes, a style later known as Orphism. She said that one of her best-known paintings, “Marche au Minho,”was inspired by the beauty of the country.
When fire is imminent, it becomes another place. If our front terrace was a theater stage and a musical score accompanied the change, the deeper tones of brass and woodwind would predominate. A long time before flames are visible, a strong burning smell befouls the early morning air with specks of gray ash swirling about in the wind. For a few days now, plumes of white smoke have been visible above a mountain range south of the Rio Coura towards Ponte de Lima. Like war in a distant land, fire on the other side of a broad river is no cause for alarm, but now it’s creeping up behind us from the north, the acrid smell a certain sign it’s getting closer. As the day grows longer, crackling is heard from the pine clad hillside, at which point we assure ourselves that all possible precautions have been taken: brushwood cleared from around the house, overhanging ground at the back thoroughly soaked, and the hosepipe fastened to the outside tap switched on ready for action. This is Saturday the 6th ,August 2005, and my wife Diane and I had been invited to a party at a friend’s house, the Nottingham painter of industrial landscapes, Paul Waplington, then living in the village of Panque near Barcelos. With forest fire approaching, this would be rash, so I phone to cancel.
In its elevated position close to woodland, ours would be the first dwelling to feel the heat, but even if it was fortuitously spared, close-packed houses on the macadamized track below would soon be in danger. Owners are well aware of this and, before long, raised voices are heard from the main highway fifty yards to the north where a line of men and women with beaters devised from long branches of freshly cut broom branches thresh away along the verges. Amongst them are some familiar faces. Standing shoulder to shoulder with her sister-in-law, Prazeres, is our friend and neighbor Sandrina, dressed in the same biker’s leather jacket and crash helmet she wore when dispensing with a wasps’ nest when we first came to Portugal; smacking it with a long brush and simultaneously spraying the fragments with aerosol. With the muscular build of one used to driving tractors and heavy lifting, she’s giving the earth a hefty thwack whilst her companeira, in the customary floral pinafore worn for farmyard and kitchen, is employing a lighter touch. Blessed with a name that means pleasures, she was our local pastor, maneuvering her skipping flock - fleeces tightly knit, faces frozen in surprise - past our gate on her way to the baldios, common grazing land higher up the valley. She died aged 80 in 2009. It was our good fortune to know someone whose life had passed in a world so manifestly different from our own.
Beside the beaters is a water-tender or cisterna with wide-bore hosepipe attachments of the kind used by full-time firefighters. But there’s no sign of Bombeiros Voluntarios, the regular firemen. Instead, two strong farmers, Fernando and Joaquim, tough enough to tackle all-comers, are readying themselves to take over the big fire hoses to ensure no flames cross the road. Joaquim's teenage daughter is standing by with a crate of liter bottles of drinking water, not for fighting flames, but for giving comfort to combatants. Despite some lasting friendships made in Portugal, we have always been conscious of some hostility. In emergencies like this, our well-being depends on the two people most resentful of our presence in their territory. Fernando is a taciturn character, used to giving me at best the occasional curt nod when passing in the high seat of his tractor, and Joaquim is even more severe; in the cafe, he can barely bring himself to acknowledge me. As a way of explaining their attitude, I tell myself that both men would almost certainly have suffered the routine humiliations of “guest” workers in France, Switzerland, or Germany, which may have left their mark. But sometimes it feels like such animosity - perhaps fueled by protracted disputes over land ownership or a long standing fear of dispossession - has been stored up for generations, just waiting to be let loose when some comfortable-looking foreigners arrive on their doorstep.
But they are not afraid of fire, have confronted it before and know how to deal with it, which is reassuring. I take my place in line and commence beating as soon as the roadside shrubbery catches fire. Such improvised tools are effective enough for tackling brushwood on the verges until the heat becomes too intense. Soon, some foresters of the Equipa de Sapadores Florestais from their base nearby join in, damping down the flames with the backs of shovels and covering the smoldering shrubs with earth. Seeing them at work reminds me we had employed some guys like this when we first bought the house. A massive pine tree looming dangerously over the roof needed to come down and, after visiting their headquarters a mile or so away, two men turned up with a chain saw. In double quick time, the tree was down, being pulled behind a tractor to a waiting truck. Naively, we were under the impression they would charge us for this, but they paid us instead the market value of the wood. As one of them was counting out money in my hand, I noticed they were both wearing flip-flops.
To my relief, a strong wind was blowing the flames away from our house. The main road bends and climbs steeply to the north and, when flames are spotted amongst the topmost trees higher up the hill, all the beaters are lured in that direction, dragging the tender with us. A mistake this. I’m still in line when cries of casa Ingles are heard from the area we have just vacated and, to my horror, realize it's our place they’re shouting about. As we moved en masse up the hill, flames blew back and crossed the road directly above our house with Diane inside. I'm worried, but at the same time gratified to see there will be a concerted effort to save her. There is a rush of men, women, and boys back down the main road into the runnels of an overgrown cart track between the pines leading directly to our front gate. Cursing the inconvenience of a sprained ankle from falling off a bank a week earlier, I’m lagging far behind the others on the race downhill. By the time I arrive, there’s already a team of volunteers in action, amongst them a policeman in what appears to be full-dress uniform playing the hosepipe on some smoldering shrubbery. Diane is safe and sound. Seeing the flames coming closer, she had driven the jeep out of harm’s way to the blacktop below.
The unkempt terraces directly above our property belong to a member of the clan who used to own all the land hereabouts, but neither he nor any of his numerous relatives are anywhere to be seen. By this time, things are pretty much under control. Although flames are still visible in the highest pines, the occasional blaze flaring up amongst the grass, broom and gorse of his unattended lot is quickly extinguished by the forestry team. It would seem the conflagration has indeed been blown away in another direction, leaving us with a residue of brushwood fires that could still be dangerous. Nighttime is approaching and, silhouetted against the darkening sky, weary foresters are trudging away with enchadas on their shoulders to fight more active outbursts elsewhere. Limping about on the charred terraces, I meet Fernando, back to protecting his own property after his exertions with the fire hose. Sweat streaming down his face, for the first time he’s civil and helpful, my presence perhaps made bearable by our mutual predicament. (It was the beginning of better terms between us because in 2010 he actually instigated a conversation and one or two more since. After 20 years, he seems to be getting used to me.) We agree I will patrol the missing neighbor’s collapsed boundary wall during the hours of darkness to ensure no fire gets past. My 50-meter long hosepipe just about stretches to this fire-blackened pile of stones at a point directly behind the house, but anywhere else along its length is out of reach.
There would be no sleep for us that night. Hosepipe at hand, I slump into a garden chair on the terrace, watching across the valley winding coils of orange fire and a conspicuously thicker band of red moving steadily upwards; a vivid explanation of why there are no professional firemen at work on our side. Without all the shouting, it’s surprisingly quiet, with only a faint crackling coming from the hillside. An illusion of calm this. Soon a blaze flares up beyond what used to be a barrier, certain to make its way through the scattered stones in our direction. Dragging the hosepipe behind me, I stumble up the slope only to discover it’s too short to reach the spot and help is required.
Not sure what to do next, I yell out at the top of my voice: “Fogo, fogo, preciso assistencia” Suddenly, four young men with fire-blackened faces emerge like fauns from amongst the smoking shrubbery. The first to speak nonchalantly asks me for a cigarette! I’ve quit smoking and would normally have hurried back down the hillside and gotten them a can of beer apiece but, with a twisted ankle, I can’t even do that. They are a bit contemptuous of my panicky shouting: “This is not a real fire, I could piss it out,” another says in English, and then they disappear into the night. To my relief, they are back in a jiffy, pulling a water tender with a tractor and putting it out in the conventional way. I would have willingly brought them any number of beers but never saw them again. They were probably soldiers from another part of the country drafted in to fight fires in the Alto Minho.
First light reveals the degree of destruction: blackened trunks of pines still spouting intermittent flame, charcoal skeletons of gorse bushes, the land a litter of smoldering vegetation. With daylight comes a party of foresters smothering the last of the burning bushes with soil. When Diane and I settle down to catch up on some sleep, worms of fire are still crawling up the hillsides across the valley but ours appears to have been put out. Completely exhausted, we fall fast asleep in the smoky atmosphere of the coolest bedroom at the bottom of the house.