Portugal fires: We don’t deserve this
This Sunday, October 15, it happened what haunted me and tormented every summer since I remembered me as a person. But this Sunday, what happened went beyond all my expectations and surpassed all the images that I formed in my head, whether it was with the dread of the unknown at the age of 9, the fertile imagination at 12 or the prudence (perhaps more rational) at 25.
Part of my summer holidays was always spent at my grandmother’s house. On warmer days I loved to go to the park to play with the village kids, but that was not always possible. The burning smell, the intense dark smoke, the stressed neighbors and my grandmother’s concern every time sirens passed at high speed prevented us from doing so. I have known the term “fire” since I remember and I fear the flames, the heat and the smoke since well before. I hated everything.
My heart would calm down as soon as the big red tanks would pass, driving towards the big cloud of smoke. “It’s going to be fine, grandma.” But sometimes days would pass, a week would pass— and it was still not fine. In the end, there was always someone we knew, a neighbor, a friend, who had lost the fruits of years of work — if not his life. Fortunately, my grandmother’s house was quite away from the forests… but we spent many hours keeping the sparks under control.
If I would spend the night there, in my 9 years old’s innocence, I would spent hours peering out the windows for signs, smelling the air… with the firefighters phone number written on the back of my painting block. When I could not sleep there, I felt that I was abandoning them, my old sweet grandparents, unable to escape alone, I thought, and sobbed the whole trip, trying to hide it from my parents.
By the time I was 14, I started staying home alone with my younger brother. My parent’s house and those of our four or five neighbors are surrounded by pine trees forests, owned by people we don’t exactly know. Every year it is a struggle to get them to clean it up, cut down the trees that lean over our roofs and those that look like gunpowder near our accesses. The so-called competent authorities push us consecutively from one entity to another and nobody answers our requests.
So, at 14, every two hours I would lurk around the house, looking for signs. I would tremble every time I heard sirens at the distance, saw the smoke clouds grow or smell the burning. I would ‘camp’ at our living room large window, hide a backpack in the doorway, and bring my brother next to me. I would watch television and listen to radio, looking for answers that never came. I would imagine scenarios, assess the neighbors’ reaction, and plot escape plans that included me and my brother carrying our three dogs. Fortunately, I’ve never dealt with the flames up close. Until Sunday.
“Only knows how is it who lives it,” says my grandmother.
On Sunday, the fire quietly reached the back of our house and every year of plans or even the prudence of the 25 did not help. “Only knows how is it who lives it,” says my grandmother. And it’s still hard for me to put it all into words. We soaked the grounds around and waited for it to move forward, with our heart in our hands, and waiting for the dirt road and the soaked lands to stop it. They did not. We made miles on foot to help everyone in need with hoses, buckets and whatever else was on hand. I would love to say that all of this is just altruism, but it is not: we coldly know that if it lights somewhere else, things will get worse for everyone. But in the end, I assure you: the feeling of gratitude lasts forever and the community is more united than ever.
This time, we were fortunate to have the help of the firefighters, who managed to stop it about ten meters from our back walls. Men who told us “We are human, we are not heroes, we can’t take it anymore” and begged for the time that they could get home. And who would judge them?
A few hours later, the fire started reaching the house front … and we were already alone. I can not explain the feeling of being stuck with a wall of high flames running (driven by the wind) in our direction and nowhere to run. A little more than half an hour passed between the moment we realized the fire was close until the moment it actually reached our doorstep. We just had time to take a deep breath, pull the hoses that were protecting the backs, fill many buckets, and fetch forces wherever we had them.
My emotional side — or despair — helped me putting things in perspective: do I leave everything behind and do not let the people I love most in this world take any risks or do I continue to fight for what my parents have built in the last 25 years? No one should be confronted with this question, but the answer is easy. If it started to go wrong, the animals were inside the cars, the cars were ready to move and no one was going to look back.
We are well, but not everything is fine
When we, human beings, really want something, we find out how much strength we have inside us. And we all wanted to get out of there with everything we deserved: our life, our history and the things we built with so much effort. We’re all fine, the houses are fine, but not everything is all right.
The fire is not to blame, so I will not call it a devil, even if all this was close to hell if it exists. The real arsonist is our Government and the politicians who rules us, who have a huge lack of politics and governance capacity. But above all, they are missing a lot of good sense. There are no prevention policies, no education, lack of regulation and active surveillance … and this has been a subject for so many years... The fires did not begin after Pedrógão tragedy.
I’ll dismiss talking about politics, but remember that we all have to take action. Not to end a Government, but for all of us and the true government (and governance) we deserve.
So, for all of us, on October 21 we are all meeting on the streets. Not only in Porto, not only in Lisbon, in the whole country. This is currently our situation in Portugal. Dare to join, wherever you are, wherever you’re from.