The pinhal interior, a wooded region of hills and narrow hollows in rural central Portugal, used to be farmland. Well into the latter half of the past century, the fields were worked by peasants from the old stone villages. Portugal was poor and isolated, and the pinhal interior particularly so; when they could, the peasants left. There is electricity and running water now, but most of the people have gone. The fields have been taken over by trees. Each year the forest encroaches farther, and each year the villages grow more lonely. There are remnants of the earlier life, though, and amid the trees the holdouts of the older generations still work a few small fields. The pinhal interior cannot yet be called wilderness, then, and that, in large part, is why it burns.
Thousands of fires burn in the region each summer, almost all of them started not by lightning or some other natural spark but by the remaining Portuguese. (The great majority of the blazes are started unintentionally, though not all.) The pinhal interior—the name means “interior pine forest,” though today there is at least as much eucalyptus as pine—stretches along a sort of climate border between the semiarid Iberian interior and the wet influence of the Atlantic; vegetation grows exceptionally well there, and in the summers fire conditions are ideal. Still, most of the burns are quickly contained, and although they have grown larger in recent years, residents have learned to pay them little mind. The creeping fire that began in the dry duff and twigs of an oak grove on June 17 of last year, in the district of Pedrógão Grande, therefore occasioned no panic.
A local woman, Dora da Silva Costa, drove past the blaze in the midafternoon, by which time it had entered a stand of pines. Firefighters were on hand. “There were no people in the streets,” Costa told me. “It was just another fire.” She continued on her way. It was a Saturday, and she had brought her two young sons to visit their older cousin in Vila Facaia, the village of small farms in which she’d been raised.
Costa, a diminutive woman of thirty-five with a cherubic air that only partially obscures a streak of country obstinacy, left her boys with their cousin and walked down the street to visit her parents in her childhood home. In the early evening, she began to hear what she described to me as a faint but persistent buzzing. “It’s the fire,” her mother said. Costa drove out to a high point about a mile from the village. The winds had risen sharply, and they heaved the eucalyptus forest around her in eddies of shimmering leaves. Through breaks in the canopy she could make out a broad column of gray smoke in the east, but she could see no flames and could not tell how large or how close the fire was. She stopped her car atop a highway overpass, where there was a clear view across the hills, and got out. No more than a few hundred yards away there rose a wall of fire more than a hundred feet tall and several miles wide. Lashes of flame shot forward from the fire front; glowing embers spewed upward in an almost liquid stream, as if spit from a fountain, to be carried forward on the wind. Above the blaze sat a massive thunderhead, black and malignant, engorged with the smoke cascading up from the earth.
The Pedrógão Grande fire burned for four days, but it was the first hours that were worst. By three in the morning, it had consumed more than 37,000 acres. Before it was contained, 78,000 more acres had burned. More than 1,100 buildings were damaged or destroyed. Sixty-seven people died. Modern Portugal has seen a great number of catastrophic wildfires, but the fire in Pedrógão Grande was both the largest and the deadliest.
How what had seemed to be just another blaze grew so quickly to such a scale was the immediate question of the surviving inhabitants, and of the country as well. The weather had evidently been key. The spring in Portugal had been exceptionally hot and dry; by June 17 there had been no rain for nineteen days, and daytime temperatures regularly exceeded a hundred degrees Fahrenheit. Moisture levels in the ground layer of desiccating leaves and grass, where wildfires typically ignite, had fallen to as low as 2 percent on the day of the fire. In such conditions, “a single spark will burn everything,” one fire expert told me.
There was a great deal of talk, too, about the upkeep of the forests. More than 90 percent of Portuguese forests are privately owned, more than anywhere else in Europe and possibly the world. In the pinhal interior, almost everyone owns at least a few acres of pine or eucalyptus. These plots are considered “savings accounts,” I was frequently told. They are largely untended. But every thirty to forty years, for pine, and every ten years, for eucalyptus, the trees are harvested and sold, mostly for paper pulp, and the owners collect several thousand euros in earnings. Both species are fire prone, however, especially when, as is generally the case, the underbrush and litter that accumulate beneath them are not cleared away. “People here just want to make some money,” Miguel Esteves, a twenty-three-year-old resident of Pedrógão Grande, told me. His air of resignation suggested that he found this attitude abhorrent and that it was, to some degree, his own. He makes a living selling firewood. “That’s the country we have,” Esteves said. “We’re poor people, in a poor country.” Clearing the forests costs time, money, or both, and is worthless as a preventive measure unless one’s neighbors, and one’s neighbors’ neighbors, do the same. His mother died in the fire.
The roads in the pinhal interior run through the forests, and often the forests run up to the very edges of the pavement, though by law there should be a bare margin of several meters on both sides. Clearing the roadsides is the responsibility of public officials, which in practice means the roadsides are forested. This was explained to me by a man named Fernando Tomé, a forty-eight-year-old metalworker and volunteer firefighter. On the night of June 17, the fire engine he was driving was hit head-on by a car emerging from the blaze on the EN-236-1, the narrow local thoroughfare; by the time he’d dismounted from the truck, sixty-foot flames stood on either side of the pavement, and he was trapped. The metal guardrails glowed red and seemed to writhe, Tomé recalled. The trees had been allowed to grow up against them. “I don’t know who’s responsible,” he said, “but it wasn’t cleared.”
When he and I spoke late last year, he had only recently emerged from a two-and-a-half-month coma, induced so as to allow the burns to his lungs to heal. Small, raw scars festered on his forehead, and his burned lower eyelids drooped in rheumy half-moons. Tomé recalled watching the skin blister and drip from his hands. Shortly after the fire, loggers were brought in to cut and clear the burned snags along the road where he’d been caught; I saw stumps from pines that had evidently been allowed to grow for at least twenty years.
Nearly half the victims of the fire died along a straight, 300-meter stretch of the EN-236-1. What remained of their cars, singed a sickly white, was found in a small pileup or off the road in the trees. Most of the bodies were found in the cars. The official cause of death was listed as “carbonization”; identifications had to be made with DNA. Other victims lay on the pavement, untouched by flames but stiff, as if frozen, though in fact their flesh had been cooked solid by the heat. The trees stood vigil like sooty ghosts. Next to the body of Miguel Esteves’s mother was found a hardened pool of yellow metal. She had set off from her home, and then from her car, with her box of gold jewelry.
Everyone I met in Pedrógão Grande believed that the fire had been set intentionally, probably for the benefit of the powerful paper companies. (The timber industry makes up about 4 percent of Portugal’s GDP.) “We had four or five fires starting at the same time,” Pedro Lopes, a court clerk, told me, and he could not believe this was bad luck alone. His wife claimed that explosives had been found in the forest. “It was all planned,” said Tomé, the firefighter. “Don’t try to convince me otherwise.” Wildfires cause a glut in the wood supply, since dead trees must be harvested quickly. Consequently, the price of wood drops, which is bad for the landowners but good for the paper companies that buy from them. “I think it was arson,” said Dora Costa, “by someone who knew exactly what they were doing.” But neither she nor any of her neighbors had any expectation that the putative arsonists might one day be found or held to account. For as long as they could recall, there had always been fires, and in their opinion the fires had always been set, and that was not about to change.
Any explanation for the Pedrógão Grande fire, or indeed for most of what has happened in Portugal for nearly the past century, must inevitably invoke the influence of António de Oliveira Salazar. Salazar, a son of the pinhal interior, ruled Portugal for four decades. He was a right-wing dictator, but he abjured the medals and martial regalia of his contemporaries Mussolini and Hitler; to the dismay of his underlings, he typically sat out the parades thrown in his honor. He never married. He lived with his sisters in a house that abutted a church where each day he recited his prayers, and he was said to radiate the abstemious disdain of a university don from the conservative provinces, which is precisely what, until his sudden anointment as national savior in 1928, he was. Salazar was a “petit-bourgeois monocrat,” as the scholar Jacques Georgel put it, his regime a sort of “fascism deprived of all the attributes of fascism,” a “travesty.” What little impulse to grandiosity he possessed was apparently reserved for the naming of his system, which he christened the Estado Novo: the New State.
Salazar believed in the salvific virtues of poverty and toil as he had known them in the pinhal interior, or at least he recognized these as useful tools of social control. He told his people they were a nation of docile, hardworking peasants, and his people largely believed him. “The Portuguese must be treated as children,” Salazar once remarked. “Too much too often would spoil them.” Those who could not tolerate this infantilizing asceticism, especially among the younger generations, left the country. In one decade, Pedrógão Grande lost nearly 40 percent of its eight thousand inhabitants.
Only after Salazar’s death did the Portuguese overthrow the Estado Novo, in a bloodless coup in 1974. Historians remain a bit confounded by the longevity of the regime, though the Portuguese are inclined to say that Salazar was right about them being docile. “We’re a very peaceful people,” Pedro Lopes, the court clerk, told me in Pedrógão Grande. Every Portuguese I’ve had occasion to discuss this with has made some version of that claim. If this tendency toward forbearance comes from Salazar, it is surely among the most quietly destructive of his bequests to his country.
Another is the forest. Salazar was not opposed to all economic development, and he encouraged industries that he deemed politically unthreatening, unlikely to offer inroads to communists. One of these was forestry. At the time of Salazar’s birth, in the late nineteenth century, less than 10 percent of Portugal was forested. The government at the time encouraged landowners to plant pines. When Salazar came to power, he did the same. The emphasis began to shift to eucalyptus in the Fifties, when a Portuguese milling company perfected a technique for pulping the tree to make paper. By the time the Estado Novo fell, 30 percent of the country was forest, and that portion was far greater in the pinhal interior. At the turn of the twenty-first century, the national figure was 40 percent.
There had always been wildfires, but there had also been farms and peasants to contain them. The farm plots served as firebreaks, and the peasants cleared the forest underbrush, spotted fires early, and smothered small blazes before they had a chance to grow. Only in the Seventies did it become commonplace for wildfires to burn more than 5,000 acres per year. By the Eighties, they were burning about 180,000; by the Nineties, more than 250,000.
The rural firemen, or bombeiros, called on to handle these more frequent fires were almost exclusively volunteers. The Estado Novo had not believed it to be the state’s responsibility to provide a professional wildland fire service; in the pinhal interior, the sight of fathers and sons rolling off to the woods aboard their roaring fire engines fulfilled an ideal of self-sufficiency that was no less cherished for being, in part, Salazar’s legacy. Local associations of bombeiros functioned like Rotary Clubs and were run much the same way; fire chiefs were elected by the members. No one received much training, and the bombeiros fought wildfires only with water, instead of the hand tools and fire lines that are the basic implements of wildland firemen elsewhere in the world. (The word bombeiro comes from bomba de água: “water pump.”) “Everyone loves the bombeiros,” Mark Beighley, a longtime US Forest Service firefighter and the former director of the Office of Wildland Fire at the Department of the Interior, told me. “But the problem is, the bombeiros are part of the problem.”
In 2003, the first of several catastrophic fire years, fires burned more than a million acres in Portugal, almost 5 percent of the national territory. The government announced the development of a comprehensive new “wildfire plan,” to be overseen by a former professional firefighter named Tiago Oliveira. Oliveira had helicoptered onto a large fire in 2003 with a small hotshot crew. “I was the eighth person on a ten-man team,” he told me. “The seventh and the ninth turned left.” He turned right, and lived.
Oliveira proposed what he called a transformation. His recommendations included cutting firebreaks into the landscape, obliging landowners to clear the forests on their land of underbrush, restricting the planting of certain tree species, and professionalizing the bombeiros. The government hired more water-dropping planes and, amid rumors of kickbacks, purchased a new emergency telecommunications network for half a billion dollars. (It failed during the Pedrógão Grande fire.) “This is a very complex problem, and no one has tried to solve it in the past forty years,” Oliveira told me. “There are no silver bullets, there are no technological solutions, there is no quick fix.” After Pedrógão Grande, the government once again recruited him to fix the system.
No one is entirely certain just when Eucalyptus globulus arrived in Portugal; one of the markers of the country’s relative poverty is indeed how little of its recent history is known, let alone remembered. It may have been as early as 1830, or perhaps the 1850s, but at the very latest it was 1861, by which time a wealthy English merchant had recorded planting at least one E. globulus in his show gardens outside Lisbon. The tree, also known as the Tasmanian blue gum, was by this time widely viewed in Europe as a wonder crop, a reputation that owed much to the evangelism of an obsessive German-Australian botanist named Ferdinand von Mueller, known among horticulturists as the prophet of the eucalyptus.
Von Mueller exalted E. globulus for its hardiness, versatility, and alleged medicinal virtues, but primarily for its rapid growth, in which he saw great fortunes to be made. “The culture of the tree should be millionfold,” he wrote in his Eucalyptographia, an encyclopedia of the vast Eucalyptus genus that was as much hagiography and sales pitch as directory:
The rearing of forests of our Blue Gum-tree can be accomplished more cheaply and more easily than that of almost any other tree, while the return is twice or three times earlier than that of the most productive Pine- or Oak-forests.
If Von Mueller was aware of E. globulus’s susceptibility to fire, he made no great effort to mention it. But plantations of the tree burn extraordinarily well, so well, in fact, that it is debated whether the species’s flammability might not be somehow to its global benefit.
E. globulus trunks point up straight and narrow like teetering stalks of bamboo. At their tops are slender cones of branches and leaves, or else round, airy clusters that can give the tree the look of a slightly sickly head of broccoli. Taken individually, there is something almost frail about E. globulus, and certainly nothing generous. Its leathery green leaves dangle high up like sickles and offer little shade. The trees tend to grow in dense stands, however, each trunk just a few feet from the next, and the leaves mingle in the canopy, clacking and clattering gently against one another and filling the forest with a pleasing woody murmur. When the winds pick up, the treetops bow and billow as one. On hot, still days, the oil in the leaves seeps out and vaporizes, and a bluish, mentholated haze rises over the canopy. (The name “blue gum” is believed to derive from this color.) “No other gregarious trees in the world evolve essential oil so largely as our Eucalypts,” Von Mueller marveled.
It is the oil that burns so readily. Eucalyptus oil has in fact been used as motor fuel. It is meant, evolutionarily speaking, to deter predators. In the tree’s native Australia, only koalas and possums, in addition to some insects, have evolved to feed on eucalyptus. In Portugal the trees have almost no predators at all, and so the foliage in their crowns grows particularly dense. A crown fire in eucalyptus trees anywhere will burn intensely, but a crown fire in Portuguese eucalypts will burn with particular strength.
Excepting their flammability, E. globulus’s leaves are notably durable. The trees are evergreens adapted to the arid climate of southeastern Australia, and the leaves are correspondingly woody and thick, such that they last several years at least. Before shedding old leaves, eucalypts draw out all their nutrients. The leaves that fall to the forest floor are thus hardy and dense, and contain little but tannins and oils. They are extremely slow to decompose and extremely flammable.
The bark is somewhat less flammable than the leaves, but more dangerous in its way. E. globulus’s extraordinary rate of growth depends on its sparing use of nutrients for nonessential tasks. Most of the tree is covered by only a thin layer of papery bark. As the tree grows up and out, it decorticates, shedding its old bark the way a snake slithers from its skin. The old bark peels away from the trunk and hangs in long, fibrous ribbons, and in a wildfire these ribbons make for dangerous embers. Burning eucalyptus bark has been known to carry several miles on the wind before falling back to the ground to start spot fires.
Much of the above description comes from an Australian biologist and fire researcher, David Bowman, of the University of Tasmania. Bowman himself lives at the edge of a eucalyptus forest. “You’re basically living near a volcano,” he told me. “If it goes off under the wrong conditions, it’s going to be catastrophic.” Bushfires in Australia and California, among other places, are not infrequently blamed on eucalyptus.
E. globulus regrows about as strong and fast as it burns, and with exceptional resourcefulness. The trees mass-produce seeds the size of pinheads and store them in their branches for as long as several years; after a fire, the seeds saturate the forest floor. Just beneath their bark, too, eucalyptus trunks are lined with epicormic buds, strands of undifferentiated cells that, after a fire, can become new branches, linked directly to the roots. And should a eucalyptus’s aboveground features be completely destroyed, the tree can regrow from its ligno-tuber, what Bowman called an “atomic bunker” of buds and carbohydrates, hidden between the tree’s roots. Within days of a fire, several stiff green shoots typically will emerge at the base of the tree and begin to grow upward. Fire may not have the net effect of actually growing the E. globulus population, but neither does it do much to thin it out.
“There’s something pent up about them,” Bowman said of the trees; once attacked, they explode into activity. This is the wonder Von Mueller had identified, the energy that accounts for the appeal of E. globulus as a crop. (After eucalyptus trees are harvested, new trunks sprout from the ligno-tubers without any intervention at all. This uncomplicated cultivation technique is known as coppicing.)
In Portugal, the government has begun to attempt to control the tree’s expansion. Since the Pedrógão Grande fire, landowners have been prohibited from planting new eucalyptus plots. Neither the paper companies nor the landowners are happy. They tend to argue that the problem is not the tree itself but the way it has been planted, in vast, unmaintained, and unsurveilled monocultures; and pine trees are quite flammable, too, they correctly note. I was told that the new law is simply being ignored, and that burned pines are being cleared for new eucalyptus. But the government has also threatened to impose large fines on landowners who fail to clear their eucalyptus plots of underbrush or let their trees grow too close to roads or homes, and that threat seems to have been taken seriously. In the spring, the Portuguese president, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, declared, a bit hastily, that the fires of 2017 were “unrepeatable.” “The Portuguese people are lucid, they are attentive, they are intelligent, and they are experienced,” he said. “There will be no more repetition.”
Dora Costa rushed from the fire front back to her village of Vila Facaia. The streets were now dark with the smoke and dust surging through on the wind. As Costa arrived at her parents’ house, her husband ran out to her against the gale, livid with worry. “I told him, ‘Forget that, hurry up! The fire is close, it’s close to here!’?’’ she told me. “And he said: ‘Look behind you.’?” Costa had wanted to put out a warning over the loudspeaker in the tower of the local church. There was no time for that, but the inhabitants no longer needed to be warned; they could see the danger for themselves. Smoke and flame barreled into the village out of the fire front like hallucinatory waves.
The authorities in the pinhal interior generally advise residents to remain in their homes during forest fires. Buildings in the region are made mostly of stone and cement, and do not burn so easily. But to wait in place as the apocalypse rushes toward you demands a faith and a presence of mind that are difficult to summon. Costa bundled her sons into one car with their cousin, and she, her husband, and her parents sped off in another.
They started up a hillside planted with eucalyptus. Suddenly, they were overtaken by flames and the fire was dense all around them, in the trees up the embankments on either side, above them in the air and below them, shooting across the pavement. “We’re going to die!” Costa’s husband sobbed from behind the wheel. “We’re not dying,” Costa retorted. “But speed up!” Her father wept over the belongings he would lose to the fire, listing them aloud like a prayer: his car, his tractor, his house. Her mother was silent. The catastrophe was out of all proportion to the landscape and the people on whom it was exploding. “You couldn’t see anything, only flames,” Costa recalled. As the air inside grew suffocating and the car’s tires began to melt, it felt to Costa as if she had begun to float.
Not far beyond was a hilltop village called Várzeas. Costa’s husband stopped the car and she ran into the street, screaming for help. A man appeared in the doorway of a house, and she begged to be let in to hide; the man said he could not allow it, as the house did not belong to him. “We’re going to die!” Costa’s husband cried again. Farther on, Costa saw a man standing atop a tiled roof, waving a garden hose. “For God’s sake, let me come into your house or we’re all going to die here!” she yelled, and he told them to go in. They huddled in the man’s chicken coop. “It’s going to burn!” Costa’s husband whimpered. “No, it’s not,” said Costa. They doused themselves with water from a drinking trough.
On her phone, Costa dialed and redialed the cousin who had her sons, but there was no answer. “My father kept on about the tractor,” she remembered. “?‘My tractor, my house, I’ve worked all my life for it!’?” Her mother was silent. “I went to my father,” Costa told me, “grabbed him, and said, ‘Stop! You have your daughter here with you, but she doesn’t have her two sons with her. I don’t know where your grandchildren are!’?”
Within twenty minutes, the wind had calmed and the worst of the flames had passed. The remnants of the forests glowed hot and crackled. Several houses were ablaze. Every now and then the blast of an exploding gas canister rolled through the streets. At the edge of the village, a great branching pine burned red in the night, like a sentinel left at its post by the advancing flames. Costa wanted to return to Vila Facaia to search for her sons, but she, her husband, and her parents worried they might be caught in the fire again. They waited for several hours, hoping that firefighters would come through to tell them the way was clear. Eventually, a car passed by in the direction of Vila Facaia; they listened for the sound of an exploding fuel tank. After thirty minutes they had heard nothing and concluded that the road was safe.
Vila Facaia was without electricity or water, but they found the family home untouched and Costa’s sons unharmed. The boys had in fact never left; their cousin had driven them up and down the village streets, with the air-conditioning on, as the flames passed around them. Costa’s youngest was fast asleep, but her thirteen-year-old was distraught, and she sat with him on a curb until he fell asleep in her arms. Costa’s elderly grandmother had been forgotten in the panic; she survived at home in Vila Facaia, too. Among the victims, all but four died outside their homes as they tried to flee. One cruel irony of the fire was that, in the end, the homes of these fleeing victims were found to have been entirely passed over by the flames.
All fires, even at the smallest scale, are tales of cascading cause and effect, the products of a chain reaction. Oxygen, fuel, and heat, each in sufficient proportion, will ignite into fire, releasing more heat, igniting more fuel and oxygen, releasing more heat, and so on. A bad wildfire is the consequence of still further chain reactions, a small fire that sets off a stronger fire that sets off a fire that is stronger still—a succession of cataclysms, each more terrible than the last and each opening the way to something more terrible than itself. The catastrophe of Pedrógão Grande was that almost every new cataclysm, when it began its violent cycle, became the germ of a cataclysm of a higher order.
The Pedrógão Grande fire was in fact a complex of six fires. The two most serious, those responsible for all sixty-seven of the deaths, appear to have been ignited not by arsonists, as the locals suspected—no such evidence could be found—but rather by electricity discharges from an uninsulated power line. The first fire began at approximately two-thirty in the afternoon, about a half-mile north of the village of Escalos Fundeiros, in an oak grove where the national power company had failed to prune back the upper branches of the trees. Presumably, a leaf or two began to smolder, and then perhaps some small branches. “But most certainly these branches fall to the ground, and that’s where they start the fire,” Xavier Domingos Viegas told me. Viegas, a highly regarded fire scientist at the University of Coimbra, was commissioned by the government to investigate the fire. We spoke several weeks after he’d delivered his three-hundred-page report, from which much of what follows is drawn.
For several minutes, the fire smoldered unnoticed in the dry litter and shrubs, but at 2:39 pm a local man called an emergency hotline to report a meter-wide column of smoke. A fire tanker arrived fifteen minutes later. There was little wind to speak of and no large flames, but by this time the fire had crept almost a hundred feet, to the base of a small hill planted with pines, and the firemen, recognizing the threat this posed, called for reinforcements. Among the many factors that determine the behavior of a wildfire, slope may be the most important. Because hot air rises, a fire on a slope preheats the fuel uphill from it. Fires move uphill quickly and grow stronger as they move, and they accelerate more and more the farther they run. There are any number of bad places to be in a wildfire, but uphill is among the worst.
By 3:10, the firemen at Escalos Fundeiros were reporting flames as high as twenty feet. As these flames reached the top of the hill, they were exposed to a slight breeze, and the breeze began to carry off the embers that were tossed up by the fire. Some of these embers landed in the eucalyptus and pine on a hillside a thousand feet to the east, where they started several spot fires. The reinforcements that had been sent to contain the original fire were diverted to these new blazes, but the new blazes began sending up embers and creating spot fires of their own. As the fires expanded south toward the nearby village, they merged into a single front a half mile wide. By four o’clock, the forty-odd firefighters had repositioned themselves at the edge of the village to fend off the arriving flames. No one was any longer attempting to stop the fire’s spread. About sixty acres had burned.
At the same time, about two miles north, in the village of Regadas Cimeiras, another electrical fire began, this one in a grove of cork oaks. By the time the first firefighters arrived, it had spread deep into a forest of pine and eucalyptus. The bombeiros might have come sooner had there been more of them on duty that day; the official fire season did not start for another two weeks, and staff levels had not yet been increased. The district fire chief also failed to declare Regadas Cimeiras as a new, separate fire, which would have allowed more firefighters to be dispatched to it more quickly.
I asked to speak with the fire chief, but he declined. Viegas interviewed him at length, though, and he described him to me as a man who knew how to fight a fire “on the ground” but had never been trained to run a large firefighting operation. He is one of several officials now under investigation for negligent homicide, but that hardly seems fair. Negligence is allowing a man without training to be fire chief.
By five o’clock, between the two fires, more than 300 acres had burned; by six, close to 1,000. The fires had begun to burn through the crowns of the trees. Fires often pass along the forest floor, never reaching the leaves and branches above. But if flames reach this upper level, where there is a great concentration of easily ignited fuel, they will set off a fire of great intensity. Crown fires are the most powerful wildfires. They also tend to be the largest and fastest, in part because of yet another chain reaction. The winds blow stronger over the tops of trees than through their trunks, and these upper winds will help a crown fire to spread quickly, from treetop to treetop, while feeding it oxygen.
By sheer misfortune, a thunderstorm was approaching the area. Shortly after six, the winds shifted abruptly and increased, fanning the flames and spreading them through the crowns. This set off what is known as a blowup. “Either the fire would have to be controlled before the 6:05 wind episode,” Viegas wrote in his report, “or control of the situation would be irrevocably lost.”
In Escalos Fundeiros and Regadas Cimeiras, the fires began to burn with such intensity that the firefighters could no longer approach them with their hoses. It would in fact have made little difference if they did. By then the heat released at the fire front was as much as 20,000 kilowatts per meter, according to one official study, and water is known to be useless as a firefighting tool on fires just half that strong. The fires were simply going to burn what they would burn. By seven, they had destroyed almost 3,000 acres and were moving west, up the slope toward the EN-236-1, which runs north–south, about three miles away. The winds tore through the forests. Police in a village not far from the fire front reported that the gusts had trapped them in their patrol cars: they could not open the doors against the wind.
The explosion of fire that followed was the consequence of complex interactions between the two fires themselves, and then between the fires and the sky. The Escalos Fundeiros and Regadas Cimeiras fires were advancing toward each other at an angle, one moving up to the northwest, the other down to the southwest. The converging fire fronts met at approximately seven-thirty and formed a horizontal V, each leg about a mile long, with a mouth perhaps 600 meters wide, facing uphill to the west, toward the EN-236-1. “When two fires merge they create very strong convection processes between them,” Viegas told me. “They create tornadoes, they create fire whirls, and they create a very strong suction of air from both sides.” The flames now stood 120 feet high or more and drew a tremendous draft of oxygen toward them, fanning the flames still more and pulling in still more oxygen. This chain reaction was strongest at the tip of the V, where the fires combined. The winds there surged, the flames burned at 60,000 kilowatts per meter, temperatures reached more than 2,000 degrees, and tree crowns combusted spontaneously in the heat. There began, finally, an eruption. The V formed a long corridor across the forest, like the thrust chamber at the business end of a rocket, and a new fire came exploding out of it.
Between seven and eight in the evening the fire more than tripled in size, to nearly 10,000 acres, and blew into Vila Facaia. The slope there tilts upward into gullies and ravines that are topped, a mile and a half uphill, by the EN-236-1. The terrain alone would have caused the fire to accelerate still further, but the new blowup caused by the converging fire fronts had also created a tremendous surge of hot black smoke and ash, and this billowing thermal plume would soon propel the fire, too.
By about 7:50, the plume had pierced the thunderhead that now hovered over the conflagration. It continued to climb, up to nearly 43,000 feet. At close to eight o’clock, the plume collapsed. “The ‘fall’ of this enormous mass of air will have functioned as a gigantic piston,” Viegas wrote, “causing an enormous downward current, pushing air and fire in all directions.” Such an event is known as a downburst. “It was very fast moving,” Viegas told me, “but perhaps more than that, at least as people described it, it was moving everywhere.” A parliamentary commission interviewed a local man about the downburst. “By around a few minutes after eight o’clock (I can’t be sure of the exact time), it goes completely dark, and soon afterward there comes a huge ball of fire, following a gust of wind, like a cyclone,” the man said. “What passed through here wasn’t the same fire that came plowing through the surrounding pine forests but rather a sort of bomb that blew out of thin air and burst the sky open in flames.”
Forest fires are generally said to advance at no more than six miles per hour. Between 8 and 8:10, the Pedrógão Grande fire spread at about nine miles an hour, leaping the mile and a half from Vila Facaia to the EN-236-1, barreling up through the eucalyptus forest, over Dora Costa and over the road. Forty-seven people died in those ten minutes. So strong were the flames that whole tree trunks were instantly carbonized as they bent beneath the winds, the wilted arc of their remains preserving the very moment of their death in the firestorm.
The fire season has been growing longer. The fire in Pedrógão Grande came before the official high season, which runs from July through September. Last year, September was the driest month in at least eighty-seven years; October was the hottest. More land burned in just that month than had burned all year until then, more than 500,000 acres, mostly in the pinhal interior. Forty-nine more people died.
The October fires burned fifty times more land than October fires typically burned in the past decade. The heat, the drought, and the winds that produced them were not fifty times worse than they usually are, but their combined effect was to produce a sort of chain reaction and what might be called a blowup. It seems likely that, as the climate changes, such blowups will be more frequent, in Portugal as elsewhere. “If it’s a new normal, the landscape needs to change dramatically,” Tiago Oliveira, the Portuguese government’s wildfire expert, told me. “And I mean: remove trees, treat the understory aggressively, and impose large parcels of land without trees.”
Like most fires in Portugal, the October fires were primarily caused by people, it is thought, and by small farmers in particular. The subsistence farmers of the pinhal interior have traditionally burned their harvest waste and trimmings, and they sometimes renew their fields with fire too. The farmers are banned from burning in the summer, and they were banned in October as well, but they burned anyway, in secret or at night. In the past, this sort of behavior was not so dangerous. There were about 4,000 recorded wildfire ignitions per year in 1980; three decades later, there were as many as 35,000. “These landscapes are too vulnerable for the behavior of these populations,” Oliveira said. I’m inclined to add that the populations are too vulnerable for the behavior of the landscapes, too, but then the landscapes are of their making. “We are all responsible for this,” Oliveira said. “The former government, the present government. And the population.”
By the time I visited Pedrógão Grande, during the winter fog and rains, the eucalyptus had returned. Much of the dead forest had yet to be cut down, and the snags stood inert, their trunks and brittle leaves turned the same barren hue. But at their charred bases were shoots of new E. globulus, a vivid aquamarine sprouting up from the ligno-tubers safe in their roots, some already as much as six or eight feet high and thick with glaucous leaves. Here and there were dead trunks covered from the ground up in new eucalyptus leaves, as if consumed by a verdant parasite: epicormic shoots.
Dora Costa regarded the new growth with dread. “I’ve had enough of the eucalyptus,” she told me. On the morning after the fire, she learned that a cousin, a twenty-one-year-old logger, was missing. His car and a body were found on the EN-236-1, but it took several days to confirm that the body was his. “He had a truck full of wood nearby,” Costa said. “We think he left the house to move the truck away.” Three days later, her youngest son came up to her and said, in a playful tone, “You know what? I have a cousin who was roasted to a crisp.” She sent both her sons to a psychotherapist, and her husband as well. Her parents will never go, she said, and she at first refused to go herself. She has flashbacks. “Yesterday,” she told me one morning, “I went to Coimbra”—the nearest city—“and when I came back it was very foggy. With the orange streetlights I started to panic. I remembered the fire, the flames.” Her hands had frozen on the wheel, and she pushed the gas pedal farther and farther down before catching hold of herself.
I had asked Costa to show me where she was on the night of the fire, and she drove me up the sinuous road out of Vila Facaia, through the specters of what had once been a dense forest of young eucalyptus about thirty feet tall. “All this was burning,” she said, gesturing to both sides of the road. “There were flames up, down, everywhere.” Spread out across the forest floor was a mat of new, meter-high E. globulus. When we reached the village of Várzeas, Costa pointed out the chicken coop where she’d hidden with her family. We continued up toward the EN-236-1. The roads were wet and slick in places with a dark mud, the sawdust and fibers left by loggers clearing away the burned trees. Costa drove silently and fast. She knew the roads well and accelerated through the narrow bends. I kept a nervous eye on her hands.
Rain was falling and the sky was dark, but the mounds and ridges of the landscape now spread below us clear and unobstructed. The hillsides were black and bare, scarred with old logging trails. “I think it’s been interesting to see the hills this way,” Costa had been musing earlier. “We can see the slopes, the roads, the creeks, things we’ve never seen before. Even though it’s not very pretty. We can see it all.”