Fire storm

Wild­fires are sweep­ing Europe and Bri­tain as never be­fore. What, or who, sparked them? Joe Shute and Bruno Man­teigas in­ves­ti­gate – and dis­cover that the dan­ger is far from over when the flames are doused

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - Contents -

Joe Shute and Bruno Man­teigas re­port on the wild­fires scourg­ing com­mu­ni­ties across Europe and the world – and ask what can be done to stop the dev­as­ta­tion

They died hud­dled to­gether; 26 men, women and chil­dren en­twined in each other’s arms. The Greek villa where their bod­ies were re­cov­ered by a Red Cross res­cue team was just yards from the Aegean Sea, but so fierce and fast were the wild­fires sweep­ing through the pine for­est and olive groves sur­round­ing the re­sort town of Mati, they didn’t stand a chance. At least 91 were killed and hun­dreds in­jured in the wild­fires that just over 10 days ago oblit­er­ated Mati, 18 miles east of Athens, in the coun­try’s dead­li­est out­break since 2007. Many of the res­i­dents and hol­i­day­mak­ers who sur­vived did so by rush­ing into the sea, as flames de­stroyed an es­ti­mated 1,500 homes and hun­dreds of cars. Of the 26 dead in the villa, Nikos Economopou­los, the head of Greece’s Red Cross, said: ‘They had tried to find an es­cape route, but un­for­tu­nately these peo­ple and their kids didn’t make it. In­stinc­tively, see­ing the end near­ing, they em­braced.’

A sim­i­lar tragedy played out in the moun­tain­ous area of Pe­drógão Grande in cen­tral Por­tu­gal last June, where wild­fires claimed 66 lives. In the vil­lage of Nodeir­inho, Ana Sofia Be­chor was among a dozen res­i­dents to take shel­ter in a 3m x 2m con­crete wa­ter tank, as wild­fires en­gulfed the vil­lage. The 39-yearold re­calls be­ing next to an el­derly woman in the tank who was suf­fer­ing se­vere burns; oth­ers shrieked in ter­ror as gas can­is­ters ex­ploded and houses were de­stroyed all around them. The worst sound of all was the an­i­mals: goats, ducks and chick­ens bleat­ing and call­ing as they were con­sumed by the in­ferno.

All night she waited for news of her hus­band, Sid­nel, and four-year-old nephew, Ro­drigo, who were at­tempt­ing to re­turn to the vil­lage through the wild­fires. At around 2am, word reached those hid­ing in the tank that two cars had crashed nearby. Ana per­suaded a neigh­bour to take her to the wreck­age and dis­cov­ered her own car trapped by a fallen tree. Sid­nel and Ro­drigo were ly­ing to­gether on the ground nearby. Like those who died in the villa in Greece, the 38-year-old held his nephew in a tight em­brace. ‘I can only imag­ine their des­per­a­tion try­ing to es­cape,’ she re­calls, tears rolling down her cheeks.

The scorched Greek riv­iera and still-black­ened hills of Pe­drógão Grande stand tes­ta­ment to the in­ten­si­fy­ing threat of wild­fire across the globe. Last year was Por­tu­gal’s worst ever year for wild­fires – 121 lives lost and thou­sands of homes and hectares of land de­stroyed in two ma­jor out­breaks in June and Oc­to­ber – and the most dev­as­tat­ing across Europe as a whole, with swathes of Spain, France and Italy smoul­der­ing un­til as late as Novem­ber. But 2018 is al­ready prov­ing an­other an­nus hor­ri­bilis. Aside from the hellish scenes in Greece, the long drought that has en­veloped much of the north­ern hemi­sphere has sparked huge blazes in ar­eas typ­i­cally far less sus­cep­ti­ble to wild­fire, from Siberia to Sad­dle­worth Moor in Eng­land’s Peak Dis­trict. Parts of Canada, Cal­i­for­nia and Asia are also burn­ing. In re­cent weeks, Swe­den has ap­pealed for in­ter­na­tional as­sis­tance with 11 sep­a­rate wild­fires tak­ing hold as far north as the Arc­tic Cir­cle. As our cli­mate warms, in­fer­nos, once seen as an aber­ra­tion, are be­com­ing the new norm. The ques­tion is whether it is al­ready too late to end the cy­cle.

On 19 July, the Sad­dle­worth Moor wild­fire – Eng­land’s largest in liv­ing mem­ory – was de­clared ex­tin­guished, nearly a month af­ter it started on a grouse moor. At its peak, seven square miles of moor­land were ablaze and the Army was drafted in to as­sist hun­dreds of fire­fight­ers. Some 50 homes were evac­u­ated around the moor in­clud­ing 34 in Car­rbrook, Staly­bridge, and four nearby schools were also tem­po­rar­ily closed as a pre­cau­tion. While no ca­su­al­ties were re­ported, the old mill towns clus­tered at the bot­tom of the moor were shrouded in dense smoke so thick that res­i­dents were is­sued with sur­gi­cal masks. With an­other fire rag­ing on nearby Win­ter Hill in Bolton, the ash cloud reached as far as Manch­ester.

While Sad­dle­worth smoul­dered, a con­verted BAE 146 air­craft, op­er­ated by the Nat­u­ral En­vi­ron­ment Re­search Coun­cil, flew over the moor. On board a team of at­mo­spheric chemists were tak­ing sam­ples to record the pol­lu­tants in the air. The re­sults are cur­rently be­ing stud­ied by sci­en­tists at Manch­ester and Leeds uni­ver­si­ties and yet to be re­leased, al­though many ex­perts fear the toll of such a dense canopy of smoke bil­low­ing out over the ur­ban fringes could be pro­found. A Har­vard and Columbia study into the im­pact of wild­fire smoke in In­done­sia – a coun­try par­tic­u­larly prone to it as a re­sult of for­est clear­ances for the palm oil in­dus­try – has sug­gested up to 100,000 pre­ma­ture deaths may even­tu­ally be caused by a smog out­break caused by wide­spread wild­fires in 2015.

Peat­land ecosys­tems, which cover an es­ti­mated 11 per cent of Eng­land, in­clud­ing Sad­dle­worth Moor, are feared to be a par­tic­u­lar health threat, due to the vast amount of car­bon they store and the man­ner in which they smoul­der for weeks. Ac­cord­ing to Su­san Page, pro­fes­sor of phys­i­cal ge­og­ra­phy at the Univer­sity of Le­ices­ter, this toxic smoke poses ‘sig­nif­i­cant health risks to hu­man com­mu­ni­ties’, even hun­dreds of miles away from the source.

Re­search into peat fires in south­east Asia has dis­cov­ered chem­i­cals in­clud­ing hy­dro­gen cyanide, ben­zene and am­mo­nia re­leased into the air. The up­land bogs of the Peak Dis­trict also hold two cen­turies of in­dus­trial pol­lu­tion once pro­duced by the sur­round­ing mill towns and large man­u­fac­tur­ing cities like Manch­ester and Sh­effield. ‘My con­cern is whether the fires are now lib­er­at­ing some of those in­dus­trial pol­lu­tants back up in the at­mos­phere,’ Pro­fes­sor Page says. ‘I think wild­fires are in­creas­ingly go­ing to be­come a health is­sue.’

Pro­fes­sor Chris Evans, a se­nior re­searcher at the UK’S Cen­tre of Ecol­ogy and Hy­drol­ogy, agrees there will al­most cer­tainly be a detri­men­tal im­pact on peo­ple’s health. He has sug­gested that if the peat burnt to a depth of 10cm across the re­ported af­fected 6,400 acres on Sad­dle­worth Moor, it could have re­leased about half a mil­lion tonnes of car­bon diox­ide into the air. Evans has worked in North­ern Ire­land study­ing the im­pact of wild­fire on wa­ter qual­ity and says it has been found to re­lease tox­ins that take two decades to dis­si­pate. ‘The en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pacts are se­vere,’ he says. ‘Wild­fire is a nat­u­ral part of an ecosys­tem, but the change that has hap­pened is hu­man in­ter­ven­tion in the land­scape, mak­ing it more con­ducive to fires hap­pen­ing. Ex­treme hot, dry pe­ri­ods en­cour­age the fire, but it is al­most in­vari­ably peo­ple that start them.’

Among the emer­gency re­spon­ders on Sad­dle­worth Moor and Win­ter Hill was Craig Hope, the lead wild­fire of­fi­cer for South Wales Fire and Res­cue Ser­vice. The 43-year-old is part of a group of 25 spe­cial­ist ad­vi­sors who pro­vide tac­ti­cal sup­port when wild­fires break out across the coun­try. Ac­cord­ing to Hope, 96 per cent of wild­fires in south Wales are started de­lib­er­ately and he be­lieves a sim­i­lar fig­ure is the case across Bri­tain. A 22-year-old man has been ar­rested on sus­pi­cion of ar­son over the Sad­dle­worth blaze and re­leased un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Ar­son is also sus­pected in the lat­est Greek fires. ‘We don’t know why peo­ple do it,’ Hope says. ‘We’ve tried to an­a­lyse the mind­set [of ar­son­ists] but we just don’t know. Per­son­ally, I think it is all kinds of peo­ple of dif­fer­ent ages and from all walks of life.’ Some start fires out of care­less­ness, dis­card­ing cig­a­rettes or bar­be­cues on the moor. Oth­ers do so de­lib­er­ately

‘They tried to find an es­cape route but didn’t make it. In­stinc­tively, see­ing the end, they em­braced’

to clear land, which in a tin­der­box en­vi­ron­ment, can quickly spill out of con­trol. And then there are the py­ro­ma­ni­acs, drawn by an ob­ses­sive im­pulse to set fires. Even as fire­fight­ers strug­gled to con­tain the Win­ter Hill blaze near Bolton last month, a po­lice he­li­copter sur­vey­ing the area spot­ted ar­son­ists at­tempt­ing to light other ar­eas of grass­land nearby.

Hope and his team have fo­cused on pre­ven­tion across south Wales, in­creas­ing pa­trols, talk­ing to landown­ers, vis­it­ing schools and burn­ing strips of land to cre­ate fire­breaks. In one way it has been a suc­cess – the num­ber of wild­fires recorded has re­duced from 4,000 in 2009 to 1,800 in 2015. And yet the over­all land mass af­fected con­tin­ues to rise due to in­creas­ing veg­e­ta­tion. ‘The more you work to stop the fires, the harder they be­come to fight,’ Hope says. ‘They burn for longer and af­fect com­mu­ni­ties more… It is only re­ally a mat­ter of time be­fore we lose prop­erty or life.’

Cli­mate change is the ob­vi­ous cul­prit. Global tem­per­a­tures have risen nearly 1C above pre-in­dus­trial lev­els, with two thirds of the warm­ing oc­cur­ring since 1975. The sum­mer of 2018 could yet prove the hottest and dri­est in Bri­tain since records be­gan. Yet our warm­ing cli­mate is, in fact, re­garded as an am­pli­fy­ing fac­tor rather than di­rect cause. It is peo­ple who pro­vide the spark, both lit­er­ally and in the wider sense, by chang­ing the way in which we use the land.

Bri­tain’s up­lands are in an eco­log­i­cal cri­sis that has stripped away their nat­u­ral re­sis­tance to fire. Sad­dle­worth Moor is a case in point: much of its peat-form­ing sphag­num moss has dis­ap­peared over the past cen­tury or so, and wet­lands have been drained, cre­at­ing a mono­cul­ture of highly flammable heather – al­though in re­cent years there have been ef­forts to re­store blan­ket bog habi­tats on parts of the moor. Else­where, farm­ing prac­tices have in­ten­si­fied and soil has been eroded, fur­ther in­creas­ing the sus­cep­ti­bil­ity to wild­fire. Ac­cord­ing to Hope, the sit­u­a­tion has wors­ened in south Wales, where shep­herds in­creas­ingly pre­fer to keep live­stock in en­closed fields rather than roam­ing the hills, keep­ing veg­e­ta­tion in check. As the world’s pop­u­la­tion ur­banises, these same pat­terns are oc­cur­ring all over the globe.

In Por­tu­gal the eu­ca­lyp­tus is known lo­cally as the ‘tree of fire’ and grows as far as the eye can see. It was also cen­tral to the tragedy that un­folded in the coun­try’s wild­fires last sum­mer. Por­tu­gal is one of the most heav­ily forested coun­tries in Europe, but also has the low­est amount of state-owned wood­land – just two per cent. A com­plex sys­tem of in­her­i­tance, where land is di­vided up among rel­a­tives, has led to an im­pen­e­tra­ble patch­work of own­er­ship across the coun­try, with 85 per cent of plots smaller than three hectares (the size of a cou­ple of foot­ball pitches). In pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions this land was lov­ingly tended by small­hold­ers, us­ing it for graz­ing and grow­ing crops, but as Por­tu­gal’s pop­u­la­tion has moved to cities, many ar­eas have been aban­doned. For el­derly fam­ily mem­bers left be­hind on the land, the eas­i­est cash crop to grow has be­come eu­ca­lyp­tus, which feeds Por­tu­gal’s $2.6 bil­lion pa­per and pulp in­dus­try. Aside from the mammoth in­dus­trial plan­ta­tions, lo­cal farm­ers are of­fered money to plant eu­ca­lyp­tus trees on their land. The re­sult has been a non-na­tive tree, which orig­i­nated in Aus­tralia, now cov­er­ing an es­ti­mated 25 per cent of Por­tuguese wood­land. The high oil con­tent and deep roots of the slen­der eu­ca­lyp­tus mean it can spread fire at an in­cred­i­ble in­ten­sity.

The N236-1 in Pe­drógão Grande is one of a num­ber of roads in the coun­try to wind through eu­ca­lyp­tus for­est. A busy high­way and the main route in and out of Nodeir­inho, it has been re­named ‘The Road of Death’ af­ter last year’s fires. On 17 June 2017, 47 peo­ple died here trapped in their cars as eu­ca­lyp­tus trees burnt through the val­ley, down to the very edge of the road, pro­duc­ing a heat so in­tense it melted the as­phalt.

Nodeir­inho res­i­dent João Vi­ola was one of the few to sur­vive. The 61-year-old gar­dener had spent the af­ter­noon at a nearby vil­lage, host­ing a tra­di­tional sar­dine lunch for some of the English ex­pat com­mu­nity who live in the area. When he no­ticed a plume of smoke in the late af­ter­noon, he at­tempted to drive back to Nodeir­inho. As he reached the N236-1 he passed aban­doned cars. ‘Both sides of the road were on fire,’ he says. ‘It was like a rain of flames.’ With vis­i­bil­ity down to zero, he even­tu­ally man­aged to turn around and drive back to safety. ‘There were many cars still go­ing past me into the fire,’ he re­calls.

Af­ter spend­ing a night with his wife Dina in a nearby evac­u­a­tion cen­tre, João fi­nally made it into Nodeir­inho at 7am the next day via a dif­fer­ent route. Sit­ting in the kitchen of his house, which mirac­u­lously sur­vived (next door burnt down), he re­mem­bers the first body he dis­cov­ered among the ru­ins of the charred vil­lage where he has lived all his life. It was his cousin,

‘The worst thing for me was the si­lence. No birds, no voices, no wind, just tears’

Afonso Con­ceição, ly­ing on the side of the road as­phyx­i­ated by the smoke. Of the 11 Nodeir­inho res­i­dents who died that day, four were rel­a­tives of his. ‘The worst thing for me was the si­lence,’ João re­calls, who has been forced to seek coun­selling as a re­sult of the trauma. ‘No birds, no voices, no wind through the trees, just tears. Every­thing was black. It was like a bomb had gone off.’

Over the past year he has helped erect a me­mo­rial to the Nodeir­inho vic­tims. It stands op­po­site the wa­ter tank where sur­vivors hud­dled to­gether, and its foun­da­tions are filled with the rub­ble of their homes and scorched pieces of the cars they died in. In­scribed on the stone is a pas­sage from The Book of Reve­la­tion, ‘Be­hold, I make all things new,’ and the names of the dead. The youngest ca­su­alty was three-year-old Bianca Hen­rique Nunes. João says her death and that of four-year-old Ro­drigo meant the vil­lage was left with no chil­dren. Over the en­su­ing days, when res­cuers reached the vil­lage and do­na­tions be­gan to flood in, there was no­body left to give the toys to.

Many of those who lost their homes in Por­tu­gal last year re­main with­out a roof over their heads. Daniel Star­ling, a 56-year-old British ex­pat and web­site en­gi­neer, who three years ago moved to the vil­lage of Figueira, neigh­bour­ing Nodeir­inho, man­aged to es­cape just be­fore the fire reached his house. With vis­i­bil­ity re­duced to nil, he drove up through the flames past the N236 on to the IC8 mo­tor­way, stop­ping en route to res­cue four vil­lagers stand­ing by the side of the road, stunned and black­ened by smoke. He lost every­thing, aside from his pass­port, pa­pers and an old lap­top, and con­tin­ues to stay with friends while his house is slowly re­built with char­ity funds es­tab­lished to sup­port vic­tims. ‘I think about it of­ten. The past year has been one of tur­moil, but at least I’m still here,’ he says.

Across the val­ley an­other British ex­pat, 51-year-old Adam Hen­der­son, who has lived in Por­tu­gal since 1988, is still wait­ing to dis­cover from the au­thor­i­ties when the fam­ily home he con­structed will be re­built af­ter it burnt down in the Oc­to­ber wild­fire. ‘There have al­ways been fires around but never that big and they were al­ways put out,’ he says. ‘Some­how we be­lieved it would never hap­pen to us.’ For the past year, Adam and his Aus­trian wife, Ute, have been forced to re­build a dis­used stone prop­erty on their land at their own ex­pense as tem­po­rary ac­com­mo­da­tion, a few me­tres from the rub­ble of their for­mer 137sq m two-storey home. He es­ti­mates they have lost around €250,000 of prop­erty and pos­ses­sions. ‘To lose the per­sonal things is ter­ri­ble,’ Ute says. ‘My school gui­tar, clothes, films of our chil­dren are all gone. Then it is the con­stant de­ci­sions about what to do next. It has been re­ally hard.’ Nei­ther prop­erty was in­sured, al­though those af­fected have been as­sured by the gov­ern­ment they will even­tu­ally have their homes re­built.

Ac­cord­ing to Alexan­der Held, se­nior ex­pert at the Eu­ro­pean For­est In­sti­tute, the pat­tern we have wit­nessed across the globe in re­cent years is only go­ing to in­ten­sify. ‘This sum­mer is surely an­other sign of what we can ex­pect more of in the fu­ture,’ he says. Held says that the Europe wild­fire sea­son now be­gins in April, while a few decades ago it started in June, a pat­tern cli­mate change will con­tinue to ex­ac­er­bate. The only last­ing so­lu­tion, he in­sists, is bet­ter man­age­ment of wilder­ness ar­eas and restor­ing more di­verse pat­terns of agri­cul­ture and forestry. In short: mend­ing our bro­ken re­la­tion­ship with the land.

Such ef­forts are al­ready un­der­way in Por­tu­gal and it is hoped these may be repli­cated else­where in Europe. In the vil­lage of Fer­raria de São João, a few miles from Nodeir­inho, the pop­u­la­tion of 40 res­i­dents has im­ple­mented an ‘En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Zone’ in a 100m ra­dius, re­plac­ing eu­ca­lyp­tus with na­tive species far more re­sis­tant to wild­fires, like oak, cork oak, wal­nut and cherry. They have been as­sisted in their ef­forts by some 500 vol­un­teers, in­clud­ing many from abroad.

In the Mafra re­gion, just north of Lisbon, the lo­cal Proteção Civil has be­gun to in­tro­duce ‘pre­scribed burn­ing’ on pri­vate land it deems to be of par­tic­u­lar threat. Since 2006, ex­plains Car­los Trindade, Mafra’s civil pro­tec­tion co­or­di­na­tor, the au­thor­i­ties have de­lib­er­ately burnt around 200 hectares of land. As a re­sult the num­ber of fires has dra­mat­i­cally de­creased from a yearly av­er­age of 368 be­tween 2001 and 2005 to 115 be­tween 2011 and 2016. Not a sin­gle life has been lost to wild­fire in Mafra since the scheme be­gan.

As we climb a steep hill where a pre­scribed burn­ing has re­cently taken place, Trindade points out the ger­mi­na­tion of na­tive oak trees where eu­ca­lyp­tus once stood, and the tracks of rab­bits that in­creas­ingly pop­u­late the area. Swifts swirl about our heads and, he says, lo­cal pop­u­la­tions of the Bonelli’s ea­gle are also be­gin­ning to in­crease as the ecosys­tem re­cov­ers. In the dis­tance, though, on land where his team have not been able to work, thick­ets of planted pine and eu­ca­lyp­tus still wave in the breeze. Like last year in his home coun­try and this year in Greece, Trindade knows all too well how quickly such a bu­colic scene can erupt. ‘You see na­ture,’ he says. ‘I see fuel.’

Bri­tain Parts of Sad­dle­worth Moor in Lan­cashire burnt for three weeks in June and July

Por­tu­gal Fire­fight­ers bat­tling wild­fires in Ca­ba­noes, near Louzan, in Oc­to­ber 2017

Greece Burnt-out cars line the roads af­ter wild­fires hit the sea­side re­sort of Mati

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