I didn’t smell the smoke until I stepped onto my patio two mornings after the fires had started. I’d noticed an unusual haze the previous evening, driving home from work in Gijón, but even so, the smell of smoke didn’t make me think forest fire. Forest fires are a summer problem, and though we’d had an atypically warm March and a few really surprising days, the weather was not yet summery
But shortly after going back inside that morning, I got a call from a friend to report that a hundred fires were burning across Asturias and hundreds and hundreds of acres were ablaze. The mountains in the west near Luarca had the worst fires, but just outside the capital of Oviedo, Monte Naranco was burning, and in the east were more fires. Only 10 kilometers away from my home, a fire threatened a military barracks in a neighboring town. That, my friend suggested, was what I was smelling. His source was the radio, but the newspapers already had a story in the day’s edition, and at the end of that hazy, windy Friday, I sat down to read about the fires. Who started them and why? The title of one of the stories was “Burning or Being Burned?”
It was two days before Palm Sunday, and Easter festivities were getting underway in many communities, including mine. Already, the Sunday before, various groups of performers from neighboring provinces and even from as far as Portugal had enacted scenes in the town plaza at noon. The weather was fine and people were out, taking children to the park or meeting friends for a late breakfast at a café or having a drink before lunch. On their way, people stopped to watch the singing and dancing or to enjoy the skits. Some performers, dressed like bears, pretended to maul inattentive children, who would retreat amidst laughter to hide behind a parent. Other performers wearing cow costumes, complete with horns and huge cowbells around their necks, appeared even more dangerous than the bears. Now, a week later, various carnival rides were set up about the town. They were due to open for business that evening, and as I sat down with the newspaper, I heard the music that suggested the attractions were running. It gusted louder then more distant, with the wind. As parents watched children go round and round, the topic of conversation would also revolve, with the fires at the center and the question of who really was to blame. Was it arsonists who set them, as the president of Asturias angrily insisted, calling the responsible parties terrorists, or was it the dry hot weather, both everyone’s fault and nobody’s? Or was it the fault of the government itself, first for the limitations imposed on using and caring for public lands, with no plan for the future or precautions for the present, and for a slow response to emergency calls? In the past, villagers recounted, people understood that the forests had to be taken care of, and country folk cut and cleared in the winter to prevent the summer fires. But that wasn’t possible anymore because so few people were left in the villages to do the job. Plus nowadays, people were constrained by one prohibition or another as to what could be cut and when, what burned and when. Permits were required for everything. Over and over, villagers said, they had warned that the necessary maintenance wasn’t being done, but the government ignored them. That, perhaps, is why someone would set a fire—to get the government’s attention. Meanwhile, the president of Asturias proclaimed that Asturias was not simply on fire; it was being burned.
After reading the six pages in the paper covering the fires, I knew that they had started on Wednesday; that on Thursday, the throughway that runs the length of Asturias had been cut because of fires burning on the fringes; that motorists had been stranded; that almost two dozen villages had been threatened and some 400 inhabitants evacuated; that houses and barns and hórreos had burned; that the relentless wind from the south, gusting at 50 and 60 miles per hour, meant that the fires were worse the second day despite the 600 firefighters; that the flames had reached the coast; and that rain was predicted, but only scattered showers in the east rather than the downpour needed in the west. Thursday at midday, 87 fires were burning. The detail that stuck with me was a man lamenting the loss of the acres of pine that he’d been about to sell. He had worked for 14 years alongside his father and grandfather to secure his future. Like him, many others. “The efforts of our grandparents have been erased in minutes,” he said. Others said it was everything they’d worked for all their lives that was lost.
I put the paper down. Last report I’d heard was of 119 fires still burning. No rain so far despite the desperate hopes. A wind that blew all day. Would Saturday be worse?
When I stepped outside the next morning, I saw the pavement was damp. By 11 a.m., there was a fine rain. By afternoon all but two fires had been contained. The wind started up again, but it brought more rain. It was a wet, chilly evening. No standing outside with a cup of tea, as I had the night before, watching for the helicopter I’d heard. I had also watered my flower garden, parched after the day of relentless wind. My neighbor was out too. “Quite a breeze,” I had said by way of greeting. He’d agreed. Maybe it would bring rain, he added. I thought we would share a word of dismay about the fires, but he said he needed the rain for his vegetable garden. “And for the fires,” I added. “And for the fires,” he echoed.
So we got the rain, he for his vegetables, I for my flowers, and the firefighters for the flames. They were essentially out by afternoon. But the chilly wind and intermittent rain kept on into the evening. They made you want to scurry back inside, safe from the elements with four walls and a roof. By the end of the day, not only four walls appealed but a crackling fire on the hearth. Unless perhaps you’d just survived one.
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