Living in a war zone

news: Living in a war zone

Devastating forest fires have once again laid waste to huge swathes of the Algarve. Resident reporter Gabriel Hershman spoke to two first-hand witnesses to the blaze, who have very different reports of the behaviour of the authorities.

British artist Stuart Frost is about to stage a new exhibition of his artwork. Entitled ‘Rotation’, it will go ahead as planned at the Galeria Municipal Convento Espírito Santo, in Loulé, from August 6. Stuart and his Danish wife Gunheld planned to spend last week making final preparations for the exhibition. But instead they fought a dramatic battle to save their home from the terrifying onslaught of forest fires. Gunheld likened the whole experience to living “in a war zone”. She spoke to me from the family’s home in the hamlet of Sítio de Portela, six kilometres from Ameixial, where the couple lives with their two young daughters.

Gunheld said that, for several days, the sky had been filled with planes and helicopters flying overhead until nightfall. “We live on a ridge. Early in the hours of Wednesday morning, we felt the fire approaching our home, which also serves as Stuart’s studio. Much of his artwork is made of cork which made it even more frightening. At 4am we were on the phone to the bombeiros continuously – we must have called them 50 times, but there was no reply. We have also been out of water for the last three weeks. The second-hand pump is broken, so we were reduced to trying to beat the flames with bushes and sticks. Loulé Câmara finally delivered a tank of water at 4am and we were spared. But we have had a difficult time dealing with the authorities. It’s like a third world country here at the moment. The local president of the Junta, Albino Chão, told us: ‘If you’re not happy about things, you can always go back to England.’”

Last Thursday, the fire became dangerous again, located just 450 metres from their housed. Their electricity had been cut off and the family was still living under the threat of imminent evacuation. Thankfully, this did not arise – by Friday afternoon the fire had abated, but the scene around their home was grim and they still had no running water.“The landscape was all black, but at least the fire was no longer threatening the house. We feel empty inside. We came here because we liked the landscape, sensing it had more of a Portuguese feel to it. Now we just feel totally exhausted and drained.”

Solely concerned with

helping the people

In stark contrast to Gunheld’s experience, Tim Frangapulo could not be more complimentary about the helpfulness of the câmara – in his case Silves Câmara. Tim lives in Zebro de Baixo, close to Messines. “I thought my house, which backs on to a eucalyptus forest, had been completely destroyed by fire. The flames seemed to be engulfing the house, so we retreated to the nearest watering hole. There was nothing more we could do.” Isabel Soares, the president of Silves Câmara, arrived on the scene surrounded by a full entourage, but took time out to sit with the children while their parents and the bombeiros were gone. Tim says he cannot speak highly enough of Soares. “She was completely oblivious to the TV crew who arrived from RTP and TVI – she was solely concerned with helping the people around her.”

Tim, a former cameraman with Granada TV in England, says there was no sense of Soares being politically canny or media-savvy. “The câmara handled itself magnificently. They made a determined effort to save our property. They even sent over an earth mower to remove the excess vegetation near the house.” For Tim the most frightening moment came when a helicopter flew over with a big bag of water. “Then flames shot straight up the hill and we really thought we had lost the house. Fortunately, our home was saved. These fires are burning so quickly that sometimes they don’t catch the big wood. Once again, I would like to reiterate my gratitude to Silves Câmara for all they did.”