Aerial view of some of the burnt ground

Fire: one of nature’s dangerous sides

My articles are usually about fantastic species of wildlife or subjects to smile about. However, nature is not always kind. Twice in the past three months, nature has tried its best to be wicked around me.

Firstly, an overnight thunderstorm saw a lightening strike hit directly on the ground next to our house; the resulting electric energy came through the earth rods, jumping across to the telephone line and exploding many electrical devices. Luckily (eventually) the insurance paid out.

However, on Monday, July 6, we were greeted by a scene that everyone fears in Portugal: the sight of smoke during the summer with a huge plume of black, brown and white smoke located only 1km from our house, which is north east of the village of São Marcos da Serra. Soon enough we could see the flames coming over the top of a nearby ridge. In these situations, wind direction can be your friend or enemy and thankfully on this day, it was our friend. A strong north easterly wind pushed the fire further into uninhabited ‘serra’ and the Bombeiros, GNR, ProCiv and local machinery operators managed to gain control in just over five hours and most importantly, before nightfall and the grounding of air support.

I am a proud committee member of the amazing Associação Alerta de incendio Florestal/Forest fire Alert Association (www.algarvefire.info) and therefore, I decided to live stream the footage from a safe distance on Facebook (before preparing to evacuate if required). Watching the fire was an unhappy excitement as this area is rich in cork oak and the fire was taking every tree in its path.

At the time of writing, eight days have passed since the fire and I have been to witness the destruction in the burnt area which now resembles an alien planet in a sci-fi film. Many cork oaks have been destroyed and there are deep holes left in the ground where the fire burnt down to the roots, some of which, along with standing trunks, are still smouldering. Although many are destroyed beyond recognition, cork oaks have a natural defence; they can survive without their bark.

Normally a tree without bark will die, but cork oaks can regenerate theirs. The bark from cork oaks is harvested every 10 years by carefully removing the outer bark without damaging the tree. Those trees still standing, even though burnt, have a chance of surviving, although those harvested in recent years stand little chance of survival against the fire.

In some of the valleys in the area, green shoots are already pushing through the ash, as a forest fire can actually be good for the ecosystem due to the fire returning many already dead trees and plants back into the soil as nutrients. However, those lost cork oaks will take a generation to regenerate to a cork producing state. A local once told me “plant an acorn for your grandchild” simply because it takes 30 years before a tree can produce usable cork.

One thing you immediately notice when you visit a burnt area is the lack of birds. There are no trees to perch on, no cover in which to hide and there is no food to eat. Luckily, the shape of this fire meant that many species of wildlife probably had a good chance of escape and being July, many species would have finished breeding. Amazingly, there are many grasshoppers, crickets and beetles still inside the area and the occasional swift swoops through to catch any insects flying.

Many of the strategically placed bee hives also managed to survive the flames with only a few damaged. I inspected one collection and could see the bees happily coming and going but they will have a little more distance to fly for pollen. I suspect the beekeepers will soon move these hives to new locations.

A few days ago, I produced a short film showing the destruction which can be found on my website by searching in the blog at www.craigrogers.photography.

By Craig Rogers
|| features@algarveresident.com

Craig Rogers is a wildlife and nature photographer from Wales now living in the Algarve, offering photography workshops. For more information, photographs and his blog visit www.craigrogers.photography

Aerial view of some of the burnt ground
Burnt cork oak trees
Bee hives within the burnt area
Cork oak tree stump continuing to burn eight days after
Plants are already starting to rise through the ash