Forest fires have been raging again this summer on Mallorca: So far, in 2012, there have been 74 fires across the Balearic Islands, destroying 151 hectares. The insane thing is that some of these fires are deliberately started. Do the arsonists not care about the impact of their actions? About the brutal scars of the scorched countryside? Or the people who bravely risk their lives to fight these blazes?
We saw the work of these firefighters at close quarters one July, when fire spread to our land from a neighbouring property. We’d been out in the morning and, driving down the lane towards the finca, we spotted clouds of billowing grey smoke from the valley below. It appeared to be coming from our property, so I switched into rally driving mode – rarely used these days – and, moments later, the car screeched to a halt outside our gates. About 100 metres from our terrace, on the other side of our small valley, flames were crackling and guttering wildly in the wind, as they licked their way across the bone-dry vegetation. It transpired that a neighbour – two fields away – had had a garden bonfire (outside the official bonfire season) on the previous day and had believed that he’d put it out properly.
Help arrived quickly in the form of the local bombers, along with the yellow-uniformed forest fire volunteers, who are constantly on standby in the summer. Access to the scene was complicated by the fire’s location on the steep slope, so emergency services broke open the gates of a holiday home up on the ridge to reach the blaze from above.
Next to arrive were the yellow helicopter and ‘plane – often seen in the skies above us, but never quite so close. For almost an hour, we witnessed aerial displays worthy of Farnborough Air Show. The helicopter repeatedly swooped down the valley to raid the water storage tank of a nearby farmer – scattering her terrified pigs as it did so – then flew back to drench the burning wild olive trees and scrub – as well as the firefighters on the ground.
The incredible skill of the helicopter pilot was not lost on me, having once been an airborne radio traffic and travel reporter, broadcasting from a “chopper” flying over Oxfordshire. On the many occasions when we had to hover over traffic jams, swoop down to report on an accident on the M40, or land in a difficult spot, I saw how much concentration is required to keep control of what can be an unforgiving machine.
Killing the flames was probably the easiest – if most dramatic part – of the whole operation. The painstaking part was searching for “hot spots”, smouldering areas that could be whipped back into flames by a change of wind direction. Foam was sprayed across the land, settling like snow, and the sound of chainsaws and shouting filled our usually peaceful valley.
Six hours later, there were still people working on the scene, so we wandered up to offer them food and drink. All but three smoke-blackened men had left, and it was their job to do a final check. They declined our offer, being keen to return to their families as soon as they could.
Later, we sat on our terrace looking at the charred land and smelling the occasional waft of acrid air. Our view had been blighted, but at least nobody was injured and no homes were damaged. All thanks to the incredible bravery and skill of the men – and women – who tackle forest fires.