Saturday 28th October 2023.
When it is winter in Europe, they fly to Chile: it is summer there and they spend their time extinguishing forest fires in South America. “Chile is tough,” says Carlos Arroyo Munõz. “There are many arsonists there. There is far greater political discontent in South America than in Europe. The effects of climate change and El Niño are more pronounced,” he says.
Sleeping at night
In Alvor, there are always three pilots and two Airtracker Fireboss AT 802 aircraft with a capacity of 3.8 tons of liquid. Somebody might get sick. They work for 22 to 23 days at a stretch, always during the daylight hours, then they have eight days off. They are not allowed to fly at night because then the planes could get caught in the high-voltage lines and crash. So the dangers are calculated precisely, and the risk minimised accordingly. At sunset, they have to return to the airfield in Alvor after every mission. As soon as the sun rises the next morning and there is a forest fire that has not yet been extinguished by the ground forces, they climb back into their cockpits, take off and look for the best opportunity to refill their water tanks in lakes or rivers in the Algarve. When fighting a forest fire, with their shifts being longer in July than September, they take in water up to twelve or thirteen times, which they then distribute in consultation with their colleagues on the ground. They drop it over the forest fires and then take off again. Away from the heat, and away from the fire. Every three hours, they have to refuel again with jet fuel… Their machines do not have engines, but are powered by special turbines, made in Texas, in the United States.
There is always a plan B
I asked them how they deal with their fear, because fire is something archaic, a basic element of our life on the planet, which can leave a person in mortal fear. Rui Ramos emphasises that they are constantly taking part in training sessions, and that they are given good training. Before their first mission in June, the two pilots flew over the western Algarve, looking closely for water sources, refuelling their aircraft as a test, and then dumping the water again. “Fear,” says Carlos Munõz, “is always a bad companion. Let’s call it respect for nature,” he adds. “It can happen that we set off and then, when we are over a fire, a flap gets stuck, and the water doesn’t come out of the tank. What do we do then?” A plan B is an essential part of the pilot’s trade. You simply can’t crash. “Then I have to open the flap by hand, extract the water manually, and approach the fire in such a way that I can fly past it and regain altitude…” And we both go to his plane, and he shows me exactly how it works and how well he knows his machine.
A sense of community?
Back in the canteen, a container on the airfield, I ask them both if they are aware of how important their work is for the country and if they see a future for themselves in putting out fires again and again? “Well, of course,” Rui Ramos says. “Times are getting hotter, the forests are getting denser, the rain is staying away, logically there will be more and more fires unless,” he says, “there is an evolution in the mentality of Portuguese people.” Does he believe this will happen? I ask him. He grins. First, people would have to clear away all the brushwood around their houses, then clean up the undergrowth, plant the right trees, and then they’d have to throw away their matches and cigarette lighters and stop having barbecues in the woods. And the two airplanes would have to be up in the air and flying over a fire source as quickly as possible, well before a forest fire starts to spread and is blown over the land by the wind. Then they can just drop their water to extinguish the fire. And they would have to take out insurance for their houses, I add.
It’s Friday, 13 October. On Sunday, it is finally supposed to rain! On Monday morning at ten o’clock, the daredevils fly their two yellow boxes back to Seville. There they will be thoroughly checked until next year and get a new MOT. Hopefully until next year then, Rui and Carlos…
* These “yellow boxes”, of which there are still several others in use in Portugal and Spain, belong to the Marinez-Ridao company, with its headquarters in Seville.