Off-grid and Ignorant in Portugal
Off-grid and Ignorant in Portugal
S2:Ep7 - Fire in the Valley

S2:Ep7 - Fire in the Valley

And facing the loss of everything we have (September 2022)

A scary day in September 2022 as the wind changed, a fire started a few miles away and we had to pack up everything we didn’t want to lose and headed for the hills in the hope there’d be a home to return to…


If you saw a fire heading your way and had less than an hour to bundle together all the worldly possessions you wanted to keep – the ones that could fit in the car alongside one small dog and one very large dog – what would you take?

And what would you leave to burn?

Some choices were simple, some a little superfluous these days, but everything came for a good reason...and some things got left behind in the rush.

As we left our valley just as the wildfire was arriving, the eerily realistic poodle mask had somehow made it to the back seat and a large blue papier-mâché unicorn was on Ana’s knee next to a large green octopus mug.

Simon was snarling at Garfunkel who is not used to being jammed into a car full of folders and bags and other unsettling things.

It was a situation we hadn’t spent a lot of time worrying about or planning for, because it would take an extraordinary series of events for a fire to reach our valley.

On Sunday all those events coincided and we packed up – documents, emotional attachments and expensive stuff first – and after waiting as long as we could, drove out through burning eucalyptus trees just before the fire cut off the road.

We stood on a nearby hill to watch the unstoppable, then moved one hilltop further away as the hot east wind whipped up the flames and spread the fire into a tinderbox of undergrowth in our neighbouring valley.

How it all began

Everything had changed at two minutes past midday on a quiet Sunday when our friend and neighbour David called to raise the alarm about a fire a couple of kilometres away.

We have only a handful of days a year when the wind is from the east.

Our normal, wonderful air-conditioning northwest wind from the ocean had switched to the hot wind from the Spanish interior which sometimes brings Saharan sand to turn the sky an eerie red.

You’ll perhaps remember the words of our wise old builder from a blog a couple of months ago: “De Espanha, nem bom vento, nem bom casamento,” meaning: “From Spain (comes) neither good wind nor good marriage.”

This was not a day of good wind. The fire was burning fiercely, was spreading fast and the wind was blowing towards us.

I jumped in the car to check on friends living near the fire and to see it up close.

All hands were up on the hill with water and beaters, firefighters were being dropped off by helicopter and the first airdrops of water were dowsing down.

I saw the fire increasingly getting out of control, Ana messaged to say the fire was spreading towards us and so I raced back, went into crisis mode and we started to pack.

First we grabbed all our legal documents and passports, then expensive electronics and hard drives went into one suitcase with the family photo frames. They’re all in the cloud of course, but grabbing physical frames seemed the right thing to do.

We chose memories and connections from our various lives in various places, we took sheep skins given by Ana’s mum, Maasai blankets, a Springbok rug and then piled in clothes and stuff for potentially weeks away.

When you have an hour to choose what you want to keep, it’s funny what makes the cut.

Everything was in for a reason: Mr Poodlehead represents the fun we have had with friends in this new place, the blue Burmese unicorn was named Arnošt Duček by a teenage Oda in Bangkok.

Oda had bought the daily-used octopus tea mug, her school books were packed as was the ugly Toby Jug darts trophy which is a memory of my mum’s funeral.

After my parents died I moved the family history here – all the photos and old passports and memorabilia were piled in boxes. I didn’t take those. Should I have? Where would I start?

What would you take or leave?

Ana chose a selection of her shoes – extravagant and practical (but mostly extravagant) – those our daughter Oda had bought and others with memories of Thailand, LA and Kenya. Oda’s drawings and little notebooks from school in Thailand and LA were also packed.

We have never been more thankful for Cassie the Hilux: a big, reliable car with space in the back and the ability to go off road and get us out of trouble.

Sadly Siouxsie the Suzuki would have to stay behind.

In a moment of genius Ana grabbed our two Kenyan leather folding safari chairs and threw them in the back as we closed up.

Once the car was facing out and ready to leave we waited as long as we could.

The fire accelerated up the next valley and flames began licking the edge of our land.

I raced around desperately trying to pump water from the lake onto the house and to soak the land, but the water level had dropped beow the pipe and there was no time to prime the pump.

Gonçalo, the son of O Rei das Vacas (the Cow King, António Oliveira) appeared with a tractor and a plough and immediately set to work cutting a fire break in front of the house – we believe that’s what made the difference and we are forever grateful.

Then the fire jumped across into our lower valley and started burning through the eucalyptus trees straight up Vale das Estrelas.

We dived quickly into neighbour Daniel’s house to grab his important documents and headed for the next hills just before the fire blocked our way.

As we stood at a distance and watched the flames tear across Daniel’s land, we were convinced his house had gone – I heard an explosion and thought it was the gas bottle by the house.

The wind switched from east to south and back to east again, and with each move it raised hopes and dashed hopes.

Through the smoke we tried to make out where the fire had reached, but perspective was playing tricks on us.

We couldn’t see into our valley – only to the top of the hill – and to the guesthouse which appeared to be still standing.

My annoyingly calm war correspondent approach of: “it’s going to be fine, love” was understandably answered by an expletive barrage of just how not fine any of this was.

The trees lining our road hadn’t burned, but then a huge plume of black smoke erupted from the valley below.

The firefighting aircraft started water-dropping runs over the house, helicopters with huge buckets beneath were doing laps back and forth from a nearby lake.

We knew then the fire had reached the house and that everything was probably lost.

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That’s when the narrative changed to: “whatever happens we’ll be OK, we’re fine, the dogs are fine, we have each other, we’ll get through this (it’s you and me, baby).”

All our plans, our investment, our dreams, our new life of finally having a place to call home after decades on the road, was at the mercy of where embers might fall, where fire might find its way.

There were tears. We didn’t know whether to stand and watch everything burn, or to go somewhere else.

Our wonderful friends and neighbours Ola & Merete had already made a bed up for us for the night and invited us over.

But we also had old friends from our Bangkok days arriving to stay with us – they were just arriving in our area when we suggested they head on to lunch without us.

When a beach day turned into a bitch of a day: at 11am we were planning what to pack in the cooler box

We left our vantage point and went to meet them – it was their holiday, they’d come out of their way to see us, and so we took them to a little beach bar to talk about other things and get a little respite.

As we arrived, not knowing if we would have a home to go back to, our phones started to ping with photos from our friend and landscaper Carlos Dias who’d reached Vale das Estreles with the brigade.

Our house was fine. Our guesthouse was fine. The whole new building site was untouched.

See our new panels on the left…now that was a lucky save

The feeling of relief was immense. After watching the sun go down over the ocean we drove back through a charred eucalyptus forest, the darkness illuminating glowing spot fires all over the place.

The power was off, so we lit candles, put on some music, opened a bottle of wine and talked about relief, friendship and great times in Bangkok where Ana wore amazing shoes and where Arnošt Duček got his name.

The next day we discovered how lucky we had been.

If this fuel can had gone up the whole solar house would have been obliterated along with our new, uninsured solar system

We had just installed a very expensive new solar power system in our little “solar house” which I had written a blog about and was about to send when the fire started.

The building was burned on the outside, a plastic jerry can full of petrol had been warped out of shape by the heat, but somehow hadn’t exploded.

The fire had flickered inside and blackened the wall, but the lithium batteries were all still safe in their cardboard boxes, the hillside panels undamaged.

Phew, that was close! Lithium batteries aren’t known for their fire protection properties

A wood and plastic pergola had gone up, taking a teak Kenyan day bed with it, but the thick black smoke had been the canas reeds I’d be planning to cut down and the tree trunks I was working out how to cut into firewood: two big jobs I no longer need to do!

My Spring weight-loss programme of daily strimming of the land to cut brush at least 50m from every building was more about exercise and obeying the law than thinking it would make any difference. But in the end it did.

So, did I save the right things?

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I could have taken a few of the crazy waistcoats my Auntie Pat made me when I was a teenager and perhaps some of the shoeboxes of memories from each country where we’ve lived, but apart from that I think I chose pretty well.

And if it had all gone up in smoke? It’s weird to say, but that would have been OK. We were fine, our dogs were fine and we would have made a new plan here or somewhere else in the world.

The damage was far worse on the other side of the guesthouse

But we don’t need to.

We’ll have to plough the ashes back into the soil, knock over any black trees and wait for the rains to do their magic and turn our beautiful valley back to lush green.

But we will need to replant with some cork oak and olive saplings, and will have to buy some small trees to replant. We were wondering if you’d like to help? We’ll update you about how they’re doing and then you can come and visit your forest in the future.

Click here to help us replant the valley

We’ve had a soul-searching few days – even about sharing this story with people who might question coming to visit. What are your thoughts after reading this story? Please leave us a comment below.

But the view is still amazingly unburned and it will be many many years before this extraordinary series of events is repeated and fire returns.

We and our neighbours were lucky – commercial forests were damaged but not a single house was lost. Daniel’s home is fine. Our fabulous friends Joep & Vera came straight over and helped us get the power and water back on…our neighbours dropped by to check up on us. We’re lucky to be part of such a great little community.

And how did the fire start? I have no idea and I don’t want to know. Accidents happen.

Off-grid and Ignorant in Portugal
Off-grid and Ignorant in Portugal
From Our Own Correspondent-style despatches from a former BBC reporter who's now battling to live off the grid in the Alentejo countryside. Selected audio recordings of his weekly blog which began in 2020.
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Alastair Leithead