Fire trauma lingers in hills

Although the forest fires of last summer are now well and truly consigned to the past, the suffering, shock and devastation they caused continue to affect the lives of many.

August 2003 is remembered by many Monchique residents as being ‘the month of fires’. However, small pockets of land were still catching fire, or being set alight, throughout September. One such area was Alferce, a small mountain village in Serra de Monchique, where the residents are still trying to put their lives back together.

Rolf Osang, owner of Galeria Porca Preta, a restaurant and art gallery in the Monchique hills, remembers the events of September 11, 2003, when, if it were not for him, his wife and the residents of the surrounding area, fire could have devastated the mountains of Alferce. Locals can only hope that this summer will not see a repeat of last year’s devastation.

Many people in the small village where Rolf Osang lives are convinced that the fires they experienced were intentional, yet they have been trying to get on with their lives and forget. However, everywhere they look, there are reminders.

It is still clearly painful for Rolf to retrace his steps that day, as he remembers watching the trees around his business literally go up in smoke. “I can still remember it like it was yesterday,” he explained. “I saw eight fires start in the valley between the mountains where we are based within the space of five minutes. There’s no way that those fires began from natural causes.”

After talking with other locals, it seems that this is a commonly held belief. Once a fire is extinguished, the wood from the trunk of the tree is still useful for making paper and some people are suspicious that this was the real motive.

Xila McCloud, an artist who lives very near to Rolf’s restaurant and gallery, also remembers September 11, 2003, with great sadness. “I’ll never get over it,” she commented, “not in my lifetime.”

An elderly lady with no family nearby, Xila was forced to evacuate her home on the day the fires reached the Alferce area, as the flames began to lick the side of her house. “I lost my bathroom and part of my bedroom before the fires were extinguished and I had to be taken to a hospital in Lisbon and treated for shock,” Xila revealed.

Sadly, Xila’s olive grove burnt down, but, in an odd twist of fate, most of her house was saved. “I had been asking my neighbours to cut back the trees on our adjoining land for years, but they were always busy and never actually got around to it,” she explained. “Then, weirdly enough, the day before the fires started, I convinced a local lad to clear the area because I was so sure that we would have a fire.” Because the area had been cleaned of all the dead branches and debris, Xila’s house was saved.

After such a long time, it seems tragic that the repercussions of the great fires are still continuing. “I have to regularly strip the area around my land of brambles and general debris that lies on the woodland floor,” Rolf explained, “because that is what catches light and that is what burns so quickly.” After he had experienced the devastation that the fires caused first hand and, knowing that some of the villagers in Alferce have neither the money nor the help to be able to cope with such a natural disaster, Rolf set up a charity to help the victims. “We appealed for parcels of food, clothing, washing machines, whatever anyone needed really,” he explained. “If someone needed something, we would try to get it.” Xila McCloud revealed that Rolf’s charity meant her bathroom was rebuilt immediately.

Rolf still remembers with surprise and fondness, the intelligence and loyalty of his animals as they faced the fire. “On the day of the fire, my wife and I released all our animals,” he explained. “We feared that they would burn alive otherwise. Sadly, we waved goodbye to a goat, two horses, five cats, a donkey and six dogs.” But, once the fires had all been extinguished, each and every one of the animals returned to Rolf’s door. “All except my donkey,” he laughs, “which we found grazing in a nearby field.”

Despite the destruction caused by last summer’s disaster, the people in the Monchique are trying to rebuild their lives, keep their chins up and put last year’s misfortune behind them.

• Next edition: How the region’s câmaras are preparing to combat forest fires in 2004.