Just before lunchtime last Friday, a man strimming scrubland in Vilarinha (a hamlet on the rural Costa Vicentina midway between Sagres and Aljezur) inadvertently started the worst forest fire the coastal Algarve has seen in years. All it took was a few sparks to create what developed into a fireball from hell. A ‘monster’ that took with it the hopes, dreams and years of inspired manual labour of roughly 15 ‘alternative families’.
The fact that the residents of hidden ‘happy valleys’ in the boroughs of Aljezur and Vila do Bispo were technically ‘illegal’ – in as much as the structures they had built were not licensed – has in no way reduced the toll of personal tragedy.
Still supremely traumatised from gathering up chickens in laundry baskets, stuffing dogs into cars and chasing terrified cats into makeshift boxes, the survivors of this fire are aware they have actually been incredibly lucky. Not only did no-one die, the outpouring of help and support from the wider community has been humbling.
Rural tourism businesses that currently have no clients have taken survivors in, offering food, clothing and toiletries; friends have flung open their doors, spare rooms and quickly assembled sofa beds; support groups have sprung up and crowdfunding is underway in at least three languages.
But perhaps what is even more impressive is the almost universal resolve to regroup and start again – but maybe next time, do it much better.
Said Israeli father-of-two Dror Bar Yehuda, who not so long ago fled his home set back from the Gaza Strip with just four suitcases, “something terrible happened here. This was not a sustainable forest. There were not enough varieties of trees, not enough varieties of bushes. The water courses had been neglected for decades. We need a plan”.
As the Resident went to press on Wednesday, survivors were due to hold a meeting to discuss ideas. Also attending were expected to be survivors of the most recent Monchique blaze, which destroyed dozens of homes – a number of owners of which later learnt to their dismay that they too fell into the bracket of ‘illegal’ by dint of family histories in which attention to bureaucracy hadn’t been sufficient.
In the end, ‘illegal’ is just a word. A label. These are people who chose to bring their dreams to Portugal and become part of a colourful patchwork of expatriate residents that has fed into the local economy.
Dror used to produce honey (the hives have all been lost). Before the restrictions of Covid-19, he and his Dutch wife ran a trailer selling falafels at Lagos’ bio-market.
Neighbours like Sonja and Dave Hemingway ran a ‘get-away-from-it-all’ retreat only recently featured in the glossy Dutch tourist guide “Off the Beaten Track”. Now, there is little left of it but twisted rubble and charcoal.
American surfer Robin Goldsmid makes and shapes surf boards, and had only just completed his workshop to start a new “hopefully much more lucrative phase” of his life, while Will Brawn, 33, from UK had constructed a fairytale house of wood around a tree for German wife Laura and their new baby.
“It’s not easy to look at the photographs,” admits Laura, also 33. “It was all so beautiful. We had just had a magical year…”
Baby Ryleigh was born in the ‘treehouse’. Happily she is much too young to have suffered any lasting trauma due to its loss and the mad scramble to escape a wall of flames that bulldozed through over 2,200 hectares, though there were moments when her mother feared they weren’t going to make it out alive.
“I was thinking ‘what if the cars stop’, like those cars in the fires of Pedrógão Grande…”
Laura’s friend Ana Dold (again 33) insisted her friend and baby went on ahead while she rounded up the stragglers, including a cat named Leo.
By this time, the sky was black, the noise from the advancing wall of flames absolutely terrifying.
Leo appeared out of the gloom just as Ana shouted that she couldn’t wait any longer. Then the bus she bundled him into stalled as she tried to climb out of the blackening valley.
“I thought ‘don’t panic’… I let it roll back and then tried it again…”
They all got out: seven dogs, all the chickens, and Leo the cat.
Will is adamant that they will be back, but not just yet. “No one could live in that landscape right now. It’s not healthy.”
Dom Munzer and Tineke Smit are also convinced they will rebuild – and both are in their 70s.
Their two-storey brick-built home was totally destroyed, but, amazingly, their outside compost toilet was untouched. “Even the lavatory paper was still perfect,” marveled Tineke who admits to lurching from a state of semi-normality to uncontrollable tears.
Now is the time for support – hence a massive list of initiatives that have started (see box). But the pain is still incredibly raw.
Dror, for instance, seems haunted by the fact that he saved his children’s computers and Lego, but forgot his youngest son’s beloved stuffed animal ‘Wolfie’.
“He took Wolfie everywhere … even to school. When I got everything out, he was waiting at a friend’s. He didn’t seem interested in the computer. He just said: ‘Papa, did you save Wolfie?’ I felt so bad…”
But like the others Dror is trying to focus on moving forwards. “We left Israel with four suitcases. We left our place this time with two. We have to keep going. We have to find solutions.”
Wildfire Support for Families Algarve:
Vegan-Hills fire relief fundraiser by Vegoa:
Wederopbouw Eco community na verwoestende bosbrand (Rebuilding Eco community after devastating forest fire):
Help Others Rebuild in the Algarve:
From Green Hill to Black Wasteland:
PCP Algarve warns: “Forests need a better plan”
Exactly as Israeli homeowner Dror Bar Yehuda told us when recounting his story, the PCP/Algarve has warned “we need new policies for the forest and rural areas”.
In a statement released on Tuesday, the Algarve branch of the communist party warned that, in spite of all the warning signs (meaning, major wildfires), “profound structural measures to reinforce fire prevention” in the Algarve are still sorely lacking.
Citing the devastating blazes of 2018 in Monchique (which survivors say didn’t in fact have the intensity of this latest fire), the statement stresses that very little in terms of improved policies to prevent such tragedies has changed.
Forested areas require public investment, say the communists, along with extreme care and attention to ensure indigenous species are maintained – while agricultural production has to be encouraged, and not devalued to the point that forests fall into abandonment.
By NATASHA DONN