Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Fire strikes close to home


Over the past two days a  series of forest fires raced through a huge swathe of the Alt Emporda, and are only now being brought under control. On Sunday afternoon we went to the beach, completely unaware of the drama unfolding less than twenty kilometres away. The same wind that was whipping up waves for us to play in was also helping to spread dozens of fires, destroying thousands of acres of woodland and agricultural land, injuring many people and killing at least four. 

On Monday morning as we drank our coffee our server Carlos pointed to the news on the television behind us. It appears a discarded cigarette started the first fire near the border town of Porthuis. From there, high winds spread the flames to Portbou, La Jonquera, Capmany, Cantallops and numerous other locations extending south on either side of the A7 autoroute. Roads were closed and people warned to stay indoors. From our patio we could look in one direction and see all the usual activity on the beach, but turning our heads just a little we could see a dirty brown cloud drifting along behind the ridge line.

This morning (Tuesday) we awoke to the smell of smoke, and found the usual blue skies replaced by a dull haze. However, the news reports indicated that the fires were largely under control, previously closed roads now open. Although people were still being asked to stay indoors, we needed to see what had happened to our beautiful 'backyard'. Driving to the top of the mountain behind us we could see the brown haze seemingly covering the whole Emporda plain. We drove west and saw the first signs of fire not far from Cantallops. Some areas were completely burned while right beside them were sections untouched by the flames. In some cases the road itself was the dividing line. We could see areas where the flames had consumed all the grass and brush but perhaps only the bottom eight feet of trees. The outer bark at the bottom of one very old olive tree felt like cinders but it was still solid underneath and the leaves looked unharmed. I hope that it survives. In the same area the pines were scorched and the underbrush burnt but the grape vines right beside them appeared totally fine. Everything had a very burnt smell. We saw one farm compound that seemed untouched while all around it the ground was charred and blackened.


We drove through an area in which we knew the fires had been dealt with (otherwise we wouldn't have been there!) but we passed various emergency services vehicles on the roads. Some no doubt were checking on small flareups such as one we saw at the base of a tree, and another along a fence line. A little bit alarming knowing how easily the winds here can spread embers. We watched as two Canadair water bombers disappeared across a hill line before returning a few minutes later, perhaps dousing the remains of fires near Portbou.

We returned home to find the skies above our village returning to the serene blue we are used to. But we look at the wooded hillsides that surround us with new eyes now. It has been a huge wakeup call. Having a proper emergency preparedness plan of our own now seems like a very good idea.

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