By: Shahnaz Radjy
Where There’s Smoke…
I jolted awake, smelling smoke. My brain took a few seconds to catch up, and even then could not make sense of what was happening. It was pitch black, and I was in bed with my husband Francois sound asleep to my left.
Sitting up, I tried to process what was going on. Had I imagined it? No, there it was again. That whiff of something burning. After all the worrying about forest fires, had one sneaked up on us?
Shaking my husband awake, I whispered “I smell fire” to avoid yelling it at the top of my lungs. Groggy, Francois reached over for his phone to check the Portuguese Wildfire app.
Portugal is an incredible country, but fires are its whatever-the-opposite-of-a-silver-lining-is. Every year, during the dry season, at the end of what is usually a hot summer, it is illegal to cut grass with a blade. That may sound extreme, but it’s for a good reason. If you hit a rock by mistake, you could cause a spark that will within minutes be a wildfire.
“Nope, nothing on the app.”
I insisted. It was a windy night, which meant the smell could be far away or approaching at warp speed. So, Francois threw on a sweater and his crocs and stepped outside to see if he could identify the source of the smell.
Bad news: the smell wasn’t just in my imagination.
Back not a minute later, all my husband said was “Yep, found it – but I got this” before disappearing again into the night. Yeah right!
I jumped out of bed and threw on my ski jacket, socks, and gumboots – we were in sunny Portugal, but it was November and nights were decidedly cold.
Halfway to the house, my eyes widened in disbelief. The compost pile, a rough square four people could link arms and encircle, was burning! Flames licked its sides, but even more impressive was the glow of embers that peeked out from within.
I ran towards the house, where I remembered seeing a bucket. Within what felt like both a heartbeat and a lifetime, we had a rhythm going: Francois was hosing down the compost pile, and I interrupted him every two minutes or so to refill my bucket. The contents were then distributed to the parts where the hose couldn’t quite reach.
Once the flames were gone, I kept doing bucket runs – this time with two buckets, one refilling while I emptied the other. In the meantime, Francois had gone to grab a hoe and was attacking the compost pile to take it apart and make sure we doused the embers at its heart, too.
It took us the better part of two hours to put the fire out.
An Encounter with Lady Luck?
Sweaty, tired, and with traces of ashes on our hands and face, we got back into bed as a hint of light nudged at the horizon. It was only in the morning when we showed our friends the damage that we realized how lucky we were.
The compost pile was right next to a small greenhouse, of which the back windows had warped due to the heat. An olive tree was close enough that it would have caught on fire if the greenhouse had. From there, it did not take a vivid imagination to see that the flames could have hopscotched their way to the various wooden structures near the main house.
We realized that the culprit was likely the pile of ashes emptied from the chimney onto the compost pile. There must have been a sneaky little ember nestled in there somewhere. With the wind, it became the beginning of what could have been a disaster.
Be Careful What You Wish For…
Just a few weeks prior, a Portuguese friend had told us about fighting a forest fire near his farm. Armed with hoes, spades, and sticks, they went towards the flames to try and clear a path ahead of the fire. To create a fire break, in other words, as the fire sped towards them.
I couldn’t imagine being in such a situation, and in my mind, I secretly wished for a simple and harmless fire-fighting experience to get a better sense of what it would be like.
After realizing how hard it was to put out a “controlled fire” (the compost pile was small and was quite contained), lesson learned. Fire is mesmerizing and enjoyable when it’s in a chimney, wood-burning stove, or fire pit. As soon as it has a life of its own… you better have a plan.
We had planned to move to our own place at the end of the summer.
By November, we felt like we were a bit stuck due to bureaucracy (it would end up taking us until July the following year to sign for what is now our farm).
As we surveyed the remnants of the compost heap in the light of day, however, it felt like we were exactly where we were meant to be.
Shahnaz is an adventurer, foodie, bookworm, and horse-lover. She is a freelance writer based in Portugal as well as the co-founder of an eco-tourism project. Alumni of the World Economic Forum and the University of Pennsylvania. Shahnaz has lived in Geneva/Switzerland, Philadelphia/USA, La Paz/Bolivia, and New York/USA.
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