The 2022 Wildfires: Evacuating our Tribe
Ever since we got to Portugal, and before we even bought our farm, we have been worried about wildfires. It was never a question of IF but WHEN we were faced with such a crisis, and after five years on our property, it happened. Well, I say that, but – spoiler alert – we got lucky and Casa Beatrix was spared. Still, I am sharing the below as part of the chronicles of our life in Portugal and what goes on behind the scenes. It’s a bit of a long read, but that’s only fitting as the week described felt like a lifetime…
There are a few photos throughout, or you can skip to the photo gallery at the end.
Feeling the heat
Wednesday 10 August
Francois comes in with a weird look on his face. I’m packing for the 10 day holiday we’ve been so excited about, that will take us to a wedding in Belgium and back to Switzerland to see my family.
“What is it?” I ask, wondering why he’s back so early from his watchmaking workshop.
“We have to evacuate.”
Everything goes into slow motion and blurrs because time is also accelerating. My brain both refuses to accept what’s happening, and kicks into gear to make sure all those conversations about emergency situations serve their purpose.
I finish packing for our holidays, grab the emergency backpack I put together mere days ago after thinking and talking about it for nothing short of five years, and grab a few extra tidbits – Arianna’s diaper and snack bags, and a bag of food for us.
To have both hands free to load up the car, I put Arianna into her hiking backpack and onto my back.
As I step outside, I see two friends there. A surprise both pleasant – they came to help! – and nerve-wracking, because holy cow we need help! That means this serious.
I turn to look at the Natural Park of the Serra da Estrela, and instead of the usual-for-this-week smoke on the horizon, I see flames at the top of the mountain across from us. It’s not that close, but I can see the flames!
Once the cars are loaded, a friend, our farmsitter, and myself go get the donkeys. Our plan is simple: we will walk the donkeys to safety, taking them to friends’ quinta (the portuguese word for farm) in the village nearby.
The boys will stay behind and continue clearing, preparing, doing strategic if last minute things to mitigate the impact of the fire should it blaze through the farm.
Cleo and Julius are used to being led and going for walks. Estrela, barely 9 months old, is used to a halter but not to being led.
I should have trained her more. Just in case! I berate myself while knowing full well that life is a constant juggling of priorities and between Arianna, work, writing, the veg garden, and farm renovations, donkey training will almost always be at the bottom of my “important things to do” list.
After a few minutes of fighting with Estrela for what seems like a lifetime, something clicks and we are off.
The walk takes about an hour. A highlight is when Arianna asks for a carrot and feeds one to Julius, an adorable first. Once we get to the village, people stare. They probably think we’re taking our donkeys for a walk, they have no idea we’re evacuating and the fire is getting that close, I realize.
Once we reach our safe haven, it’s far from over. The space kindly prepared for the donkeys is a bit hard to access, so only Cleo goes in. Julius and Estrela prove that in a trial of donkey versus human willpower, we don’t stand a chance.
The dogs go on long chains tied to a tree near the house. They don’t like it, but they can tell something’s up, so they are quiet and just whine or give me their best puppy dog looks anytime I walk by (this gets them praise and cuddles and reassuring words).
Father and daughter (donkeys) get tied to a tree a bit farther away, so they can graze and stay out of trouble, I hope, until I can sort them out for the night. I call Francois and ask for him to also send our portable electric fence with whoever drives over first.
Then I call our favorite village cafe and order dinner. I’m the crazy person who cooks a meal while everyone is grieving, and asks our gracious host if I can borrow his car to go get food for their family and everyone who is helping us.
The donkeys cave, and – coaxed by as many carrots as I could fit in my pocket – enter their temporary shelter. A small area has been set up for them to graze in safely come morning.
The cats are unhappy but safe in a room in the basement.
Arianna is a champ, barely complaining when I almost forget to feed her her afternoon snack (oops), and hanging out with our hostess while I run around trying to sort things out. I end up putting her to sleep way, way past her bedtime.
Francois is a rock, staying on the farm overnight so he can start the sprinklers only when the fire comes close enough. Trees have been cut, items like tires and foldable chairs moved to reduce the chance of their burning causing damage to infrastructure, areas around the houses and chicken coop watered to increase humidity and fire resistance.
I don’t sleep much.
The next day, everyone gets fed and Francois comes to get me and our volunteer to go have lunch at the cafe. Then, we head home and Francois drives almost an hour away to borrow our architect’s father’s horse trailer, so we can move the donkeys.
We spend a few happy hours on the farm that afternoon – with cats and dogs in tow – until the smoke intensifies and the flames reappear, closer than yesterday.
We evacuate again.
François stays behind again, but this time he sets the sprinklers and joins me around midnight for a night of uneasy rest.
On day three, I feel both drained and high on adrenaline. I’m so grateful to our community chat with all the fire and smoke updates, but can barely summon the will to keep up.
We head home again to see what the state of things is, and we thank the universe for shifting the wind and rerouting the fire, thereby keeping our farm safe.
This time, we take the ducks and our tame, one-eyed chicken.
We move the donkeys to friends’ a bit farther away and who have horses and goats, to make sure they are safe. Our birds go to another friend nearby.
For a few days, we’re home again, yet constantly checking the horizon for plumes of smoke. We’ve missed the wedding in Belgium, but I decide to rebook my tickets so Arianna and I can go to Switzerland for a few days after all. I don’t want to leave, but I also don’t want to keep subjecting her to evacuations and our stress.
On Saturday we go to Pizza Night at the friends’ who are hosting our donkeys, and from their place at the top of the hill we witness a fire blazing down the hill across from them. Luckily, the firefighters make a stand a few roads down, the wind is favorable, and we can eat pizza rather than re-evacuate our donkeys from their safe haven.
An almost normal summer day. We keep our eyes on the horizon and check apps obsessively, but everything seems OK. We head to a medieval fair in Belmonte, and it feels like a small miracle.
Just as we start almost breathing easy again, a huge fire starts one valley away. Where many friends – including the ones who helped us evacuate – live.
It’s a rager. The fire will.not.die. Over 1500 firefighters are on it. Airtankers fly 9am to 9pm barring zero visibility conditions caused by dense smoke. Nothing seems to help. Friends evacuate, and villages nearby are evacuated too. “Go to Guarda [the capital of the district]”, they are told.
Wind propels the fire in our direction. Again. We never really unpacked, so we load the car up – three adults, a toddler, two cars, two dogs, a ukulele, and a luggage full of stuff – and regroup at our usual spot in the village. I brought dinner with me this time, so we have a bite and decide to go to Guarda.
François hesitates, but once again sets the sprinklers off and comes to join us.
The next morning, we decide to relocate our farmsitter-turned-volunteer, along with the cats and dogs, to another friend’s who has two apartments he rents out. That’s a 12 minute drive from us, hopefully safe from all fires. The cats hate the car rides.
From then on, things slowly get better. In part, that’s because so much has burnt near us that it’s unlikely a fire would make its way through again. Unlikely, but not impossible.
Our farm is, miraculously, untouched. Friends have not been so lucky. It’s random, and completely unfair. I am sad, if grateful.
A lifetime of a week after this saga started, I fly to Switzerland with Little A. We’re still holding our collective breath, hoping that the brunt of the wildfire season is behind us.
A photo gallery of the experience
(Sorry about that 1st photo, right now WordPress is glitching and I can’t seem to edit it…)
Thank you for reading this far! It was quite an experience, which I decided to share because it would be strange to pretend like nothing happened – and I try to share behind the scenes stories good and bad. We got incredibly lucky, three times. We were able to test our emergency plans, and now will be working on updating them and implementing more fire prevention and mitigation measures over fall and winter once the rain comes and we’re “out of the woods” so to speak. For more frequent updates, you can always visit our Instagram profile (it’s public – which means you can view it even if you’re not on Instagram).