CLIMATE REALITY: How to live with mega-fires? Portugal’s feral forests may hold the secret
WHEN THE SPEEDING BMW emerged out of the smoke of burning eucalyptus trees, heading straight for her
firetruck, Filipa Rodrigues had no time to react. “I had time only to think, ‘We’re going to crash,’” she says, massaging the burn marks on her arms, and then the car plowed into them, and the five volunteer firefighters stumbled out from their ruined truck into an inferno.
It was high summer in 2017, and they had just crossed into the outer bands of the worst firestorm to ever hit Portugal, a presage for a new age of mega-fire that would soon stalk across landscapes from Spain to Australia. Rodrigues, then 24, stepped outside and her safety goggles immediately melted to her face; as she ripped them off, skin came with them. She blinked through the smoke at eucalyptus trees flying by, burning, in the winds of the biggest flames she had ever seen.
Rodrigues was not a professional—like three generations of her male relatives, she was a member of the bombeiros, the volunteer firefighting corps that since the 1950s has served as first line of fire defense for the towns of the rugged, hardscrabble, limestone hills of the Portuguese interior. Every summer all types—doctors, teachers, mail carriers, college students—take their vacations at the local fire station, where they wait round the clock for word of fire.
It was far from Rodrigues’s first wildfire. But she had never seen any like it: As the flames bore down on them faster than they could run, with their truck on fire and their radios melted, she immediately understood that she was going to die. The bombeiros tried to pull the BMW’s passengers out of the car—“We were screaming, screaming, but they didn’t respond”—but the heat forced them back, and they watched the flame take the BMW and its occupants. The twisting column of flame coming for her seemed unstoppable.
“It seemed,” she says, “like the fire would take the entire world.”
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