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Waiting for Godot?

Saturday the 12th of August 2023.

Gallows’ humour in our own backyard? ECO123 and the new Botanical Garden at Caldas de Monchique: it’s not that easy to be close to a forest fire and write a story about possible solutions to climate change. Where should this story begin, and where can it end?

Baiona, Alentejo. A barbecue triggers this gigantic conflagration. So this time it’s a wood-fired grill. The list of stories surrounding the reasons behind forest fires is long. If no-one has deliberately started the fire, it was not caused by intent but by gross negligence; in any case it always costs a fortune. The damages run into millions, if not billions, of euros, when, on top of it all the fire brigades arrive too late. When the fire has been raging for days, gobbling up the trees in the forests. And again and again a lot depends on the kind of forests. Eucalyptus for the paper industry provides additional fodder to a forest fire. Cultivating eucalyptus plantations means adding fuel to the fire.

Here is the view from the other side: preparations for a forest fire, from the perspective of someone directly affected. Yesterday I ran yet another test on our new sprinkler system. It was working well. As over the past few days the public power network kept collapsing, our hopes are resting on a new generator (7,000 watts) that the cooperative purchased to power our water pump with its eight sprinklers. I stress-tested every single one of our sprinklers. They are working perfectly. so I’ll face this fire head-on should it come, and if I’m allowed to stay, rather than being evacuated before. I have collected 50,000 litres of rain water in a cistern in preparation for this exact moment. That’s my ammunition. This feels like a scientific test series. I have lived through several forest fires, the last of which in August 2018, before that in 2003 and 2004, then again in 2016. I have lost my fear of fire. I am prepared. I won’t allow the recently planted trees in our neighbouring Botanical Garden to burn to a cinder as has happened before. Which is why I am trying my luck tackling a forest fire with a sprinkler system.

Right now the wind is favourable. Southeasterly winds are pushing the fire away from Monchique in the direction of the western coast, back to the  EN120 and towards the sea. Let’s hope the fire  drowns on the Atlantic coast! Then it will be over. Before that can happen however, the forest fire will destroy an endless number of houses lining its path of destruction, and forests too. It’s not even clear whether this story can actually appear, as our webmaster lives right on the heart of the danger zone. Sometimes a forest fire is stopped by a wall pulled up around a house. Blocking the path of the fire, taking away its fuel. Building fire-resistent houses, following eco principles. Avoiding wooden gables and roofing. Take out insurance, stash rainwater for putting out fires, moisten the forest completely, at the right moment, with high-powered sprinklers. That’s my plan. Don’t give quarter to the fire.

On Wednesday the wind is supposed to turn in a north-westerly direction once again. This would mean that we here in Caldas de Monchique are once more in the path of the fire, if the fire brigades haven’t managed to put it out by then. Maybe it’ll rain after all… So let’s wait. Should we just chill and do nothing? The forest is desperately dry. It hasn’t rained in eight months. On its way from Aljezur the fire is fraying a path for itself, heading for Monchique, through  the forests and back again. It is the wind that decides, it’s nature. We humans can only look on in wonder.

Climate change is behind this of course. And yet it needs a triggering presence. And that is humankind, again and again. It is strictly prohibited to make a barbecue in the forest, to play with fire. Smoking in the forest is prohibited too. So what goes on in the heads of those responsible for such a fire? Nothing? Nada? Zero conscience?

I have experienced this myself. The consequences of climate change can only be mitigated, reduced, dampened through intact humid mixed forests – not with eucalyptus plantations and forest fires caused by gross negligence. Every km² of burnt forest emits 20,000 tons of CO2 – to quote António Guterres, our UN Secretary General. Right. So what do we do now? I’m back planting trees and native mixed forests in the wintertime and will try to see them safely through the summer…



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Works in the botanical Garden

Uwe Heitkamp (62)

jornalista de televisão formado, autor de livros e botânico por hobby, pai de dois filhos adultos, conhece Portugal há 30 anos, fundador da ECO123.
Traduções: Dina Adão, John Elliot, Rudolfo Martins, Kathleen Becker
Photos:Uwe Heitkamp, Thomas Reuffurth, Dominika Grzybowska

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