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During the summer of 2018, Portugal’s Algarve experienced two heat waves and a fire on the mountain of Monchique. It was one of the biggest fires in the area in fifteen years. It started on a Friday, 3rd of August.
I first realised there was something wrong when I came out the supermarket and saw the large plume of black smoke in the sky. I was staying in a caravan at the time. I wanted to experience life in the Algarve as I had a curiosity about relocating there. When I asked my neighbours about the fire, they told me there was nothing to fear, it was a regular occurrence and even though the fire was only thirty minutes drive away, we were in no danger.
The heat was intense in the days before and during the fire, reaching up to 37 degrees in the coastal town of Portimao, whereas temperatures inland reached 45 degrees. Humidity was low and the earth was dry. Strong winds swept the fire further along the mountain.
On the second day the heat was so intense it felt as if the nearby bushes were on fire. Initially I went about my business the same as everyone else. Tourists in the coastal towns continued to enjoy their holidays. By the third day, ashes were falling from the sky and there was news of more evacuations in the Monchique region. I joined on-line groups that were keeping people informed of what was happening and I checked regularly with my neighbours for additional news; they always said the same thing: ‘we are safe here.’
The fire continued and people in the locality donated money to buy food for the fire-fighters and the people displaced from their homes. More fire-fighters came to the area, with more resources to fight the fire. Eventually they had to go the ocean with their planes to get water to put out the fire.
I was disturbed from my sleep during the early hours of Tuesday morning (2a.m. August 7th). There was a lot of smoke in the air. I was scared. I went outside to look around. There was no sign of a fire nearby and everyone was still in their beds. I had no car, just a bicycle. I felt foolish about waking people up in the case of a false alarm. I spent the night trying to search the internet for new information on the fire. I didn’t sleep. I was exhausted the next day and emotional too. I can only imagine the effects the fire had on those who were much closer to it. By breakfast time I found out that the fire had moved closer in the night as the wind had changed direction. Still my neighbours said ‘don’t worry, we are safe.’
To a certain extent I knew they were right and the civic defence system was very efficient in assessing risk and organising timely evacuations. However, I felt my concern was still valid, we were in a rural area and it only took one mindless act to set off a new fire, as one example, I found a cigarette butt on the ground near my gate a few weeks later.
I had heard about a school in Portimao that had been set up as a volunteer centre. People were helping to prepare food to sustain the fire-fighters. I simply had to go there, it was a solidarity thing. I cycled to the school and inside the door I was directed to an office. When I opened the door everyone in the office was looking in my direction waiting for me to say something. In my best attempt at speaking Portuguese I said, ‘I am here to help.’
A lovely woman by the name of Paula Teixeira took me by the hand and brought me to the area where people were packing boxes with food. She handed me a coloured marker and told me that I could add some positive messages to the boxes. By now I was crying and couldn’t stop. A lady beside me said, ‘we have all had these same emotions.’
The majority of volunteers were from the local community of Portimao and a few were from other European countries like Germany, Spain and Italy. People worked in shifts, some volunteered at night after they had finished their day job. I met one young girl from Lisbon who happened to be on holidays in the area with her family.
Ana Costa was in charge of co-ordinating part of the operation. Her calm throughout was tremendous and the organisation of the group was impressive. It was important to establish the numbers to be catered for and to know if supplies were sufficient. If more supplies were needed the call was put out to the public and miraculously additional provisions arrived to the centre.
"We waited for news of the receding flames each time the trucks came to collect the food."
I helped by counting pieces of fruit, making sandwiches or putting lunch snacks into bags and I helped to pack the boxes and sign the outside with warm-hearted messages to keep the morale high. Hot meals were prepared by a kitchen team. In the last days of the fire there were 1,500 to be fed. We waited intently for news of the receding flames each time the trucks came to collect the food.
On Saturday August 11th, we received the news that the fire was extinguished. There was a lot of excitement that day. A box was selected to be reserved for the last meals to be sent to the mountain. It was decided that we would all sign our names to that box and write our messages of thanks for the unrelenting efforts that had been made to extinguish the fire, which had lasted for nine days.
Amazingly, no human lives were lost as a direct result of the fire, this was a huge achievement. Some people lost their homes or were temporarily displaced. According to the Algarve Daily News, 27,000 hectares were destroyed.
We all cheered as the last box of food was packed and loaded on the truck. Afterwards a representative of the fire crew gathered us for a group photo and said some words of commendation and gratitude that had many people in tears. It was a huge relief and great accomplishment for everyone who was involved. I felt proud and humbled to be a part of the volunteer effort, it was the least I could do. I made friendships there which made the remainder of my stay more enjoyable and rewarding. Standing in solidarity with the people of Portimao and Serra de Monchique was by far the best experience of my time in the Algarve that summer.
The Monchique region is prone to fire. Usually these fires are contained very quickly and there is very little impact to tourists holidaying by the coast. There are always lessons to be learned from these events. In the days following the fire, I read about the suggestions being put forward by various groups and individuals. Many pointed to the flammable eucalyptus trees that are harvested for the paper-making industry and there were areas identified that needed improved access for fire-fighters.
I’m sure every group involved in fighting this fire on the mountain have had time to reflect on improvements that can be made. You don’t get time to think in those situations, you must act quickly, so having a framework for a plan of action is vital.
I am honoured to have served amongst the people of Portimao during the fire on the mountain in the summer of 2018. I am especially thankful to those who put their lives at risk to save the lives of others. Muito obrigada.
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