Quite a few people have expressed concern in the Comments section recently about Jon and Deb Parsons and their highly acclaimed B&B since the fires affected the Gaula area. Return visitors will know that both have been regular contributors to the blog for a number of years. I had been in touch with them and was aware that they had been through a dramatic first-hand experience. Jon kindly agreed to relate this remarkable personal account, so the rest of this posting is all his. Thank you Jon:
Gaula Fires 19th July 2012
Difficult. Moving forwards and don’t want to dwell. However, some words and pictures that try to convey the ferocious heat, choking smoke, fear and never to be forgotten, sounds of trees and gas bottles exploding, as the fire bore down on us – words and pictures that cannot do the firestorm justice — we fled, it followed…..
Nor can my words do the Madeiran people justice – many stood their ground, joined together by smouldering fragile hosepipes and hope as they struggled to save their homes, their children and their livelihoods.
Suffice to say that Madeira has suffered another major disaster but once again, its peoples showed their true stoic nature, phoenix like this time and they continue to rise again through the ashes…..
We were first made aware of the fires raging above Funchal by this blog (Admin) on the night of the 18th July and went to bed feeling saddened but hopeful that all would be well by morning…
As Deb brought me (lazy day or so ahead I thought) a cup of tea in bed on Thursday morning she quietly remarked that she could see “some” smoke in the forest above us. Well, I wasn’t too concerned as the wind was blowing strongly from the East, away from us and anyway, we’d had some fires up there in previous years, no problem.
MMmmm…..as I reported on the blog, the amount of smoke grew steadily and did seem to get closer but as yet (mid-morning) did not appear to pose a threat. Neighbours and we went about business as usual. We even popped into Santa Cruz for coffee and cakes and some pre guest shopping. Whilst we were sat in our favourite Café we gazed up into the hills and were alarmed to see the actual smoke “line” lowering down the hillside towards Gaula and intensifying. We returned home. Deb busied herself with domestic tasks and I (without telling her) packed passports, I.D. documents and money into a “go” bag and changed back from flip flops to “sensible” driving shoes……just in case. ‘Phone calls were made with friends living close by, good advice shared, common plans made, a rendezvous in Santa Cruz, if necessary……
It got worse. The Rescue Hercules landed, the wind increased, changed direction towards us and we started to get showered in Ash. Plus, unheard of, parts of the village to the west of us, on the same level, disappeared in smoke – oops! Not white smoke that I had been telling myself was good = firemen putting out fires smoke = Oh No, real smoke, dense, choking and all nasty colours. Then the terrible sounds of burning exploding trees reached us, the hillside and forest above us disappeared in smoke with huge flames erupting licking skywards as they destroyed the forest….what a sound, what a force. Then the ridgeline across from us exploded into flame, our friend’s house destroyed, gas bottles exploded, he carried his Mother from the rooftop down a burning path, to safety and then the furnace like heat hit us – “Deb we are leaving NOW, get the cat…….”
My puny pre laid out hose pipes were pathetically inadequate as I let the chickens out to fend for themselves….we managed to get Lucy and Gizmo safely into the car and drove firstly up the hill, in between burning trees and scared neighbours, crying children and many brave folk. They were staying, fighting, just go go…….along the top road (but not down yet) past the church, the fire leaping across the road, showering us in sparks, trees burning, smoke billowing we emerged onto the downhill road, down and away….police directing, people fleeing….towards Santa Cruz, the Airport, towards safety. The fire followed us. Along the bottom road, we sometimes stopped for other cars, more trees caught, a burning car, more smoke then….clear air and finally down into Santa Cruz …… the sea, safety, sanity.
Bizarre…Holiday makers, sunshine, swimming suits and ice creams. We parked (illegally) in a crowded side street and tumbled out of the car, Deb, dog, cat and ash onto the pavements. Phew! Plan B worked then – I didn’t tell Deb until later that her passport was still in the casa!
We walked a little shakily it has to be admitted (and attracting the glances of holiday makers) in our “work” attire – scruffy T shirts and shorts adorned with smudge marks – into our favourite Café, the Praca da Cerveja, in the village square – homeless (?) in Santa Cruz but SAFE, ALL of us.
The lovely young lady, who always knows what we want, really did shine – My God! Come in, sit down, hugs and cold water with sugar for Deb, Coffee for me and water for the animals, all inside the Café……she would not accept a cent. Kindness, an Angel? Yep.
Is your house O.K.? Don’t know, is yours? Don’t know. The common bond started then and has continued with EVERY Madeiran that we have met since who has been affected by the fires with tears, hugs and a resilience that is unbeatable with a prayer of thanks for life and a new start.
‘phone calls, contacted friends, all safe, all left just after us, will meet in Café Bom Jesus when sorted …… hydrated, calmer and animals more settled.
Met up with friends, all O.K. Life matters more than Houses. Masses of smoke billowing down across the Rapida – is it spreading? Will we have to relocate from Santa Cruz? No, after many walks with Lucy (and the cat) on the “prom” and more visits to the Café toilets – well the cat was upset – we had a phone call from our neighbour Duarte = “you can come home now, your house is safe, your garden is burnt but I put water on the burning bits next to your house, come home Johhny”
Neighbours in the street, neighbours in shock, a new Gaula, in an old photograph, black and white.
The story goes on with so much human kindness, empathy and common understanding. Suffice to say that we have enjoyed huge support and tried to give ours in response – I was still up at midnight damping down a fire across the road. We’ve had hugs, handshakes and love from people in TMN (SA, Santa Cruz putting credit on our only mobile) the Farmacia in Garajau (the lady lives just down from us) and all and sundry……people just stopping by, asking, are you O.K.? Are you I say? Thank you, yes.
As far as I am concerned, this is our home, we live here, we’ve learnt here and we won’t leave here. The people and the Island are truly magnificent. Unique. Outstanding, Stoic and Phoenix like. Kind, caring and resolute. They understand the true value of life, family, trust and community, working and living together, for each other, caring.
Finally, Our HUGE thanks to the Herculean efforts made by all the fire-fighters and volunteers, the “admin” staff and field engineers of the Water Board, The Electricity companies and last but NOT least, PT – boy you guys worked your socks off! The smoking hanging poles of Madeira!
Muito Obrigado pela sua Adjuda, com os melhores cumprimentos, tudo!
Deb’s post fire e-mail to friends:
Briefly, it started off on Thursday 19 July with me going down to feed the chickens at 7.15 am and saying to Jon "There is a lot of smoke above us, towards Santo da Serra and across towards Camacha". It stayed that way for a while and, in fact, we nipped into Santa Cruz and had coffee at our normal café and did a bit of shopping in the market. We then returned and gradually we could see more and more smoke. The wind picked up and then, standing out the front of the house looking to the left, we could see smoke and flames. Jon got all the hose pipes ready and bought the outdoor furniture in. Seriously, all we could hear was sirens and trees/gas bottles exploding! In the valley to the left of us, houses starting exploding and the next thing is is that Jon is shouting "Get Gizmo in the cat basket" and he bundled me, Lucy and Gizmo in the car. He went down and let the chickens free. Jon drove up our hill and near to the top all the trees on the left were on fire, together with all the trees/plants towards the church. All towards Santa Cruz the land was burning and I was crying. The roads were busy as everybody was trying to flee. The police were there trying to direct traffic but it was so busy and everybody was panicking. People were in their homes trying to keep the flames away. I have never been so scared …. Eventually we got to Santa Cruz and the girl in our "normal" café bought us all inside since it was so hot for Lucy. She bought me sugared water and water for Lucy and then coffee etc. Gizmo, bless, was hot in his cat basket but anyway, we eventually got back to Gaula after having received a call from Duarte, our neighbour. He actually put buckets of water on some logs burning in the front garden, plus a bucket on the chicken house and in the BBQ area. Luckily for us, the house survived, except for some guttering, and most of the plants got incinerated (already though, they are growing back) AND somehow the chickens are both fine despite all their plastic fencing melting and the bananas being burnt!
All to the left of us it looks like it has been napalmed. The house that belongs to the greenhouse chap was destroyed and yet most of the greenhouses survived. The wind was just so strong on that day that it below across to us rather than down.
Anyway, photos will follow in due course. We spent the Thursday night in our house, safe with our animals, with no water or electric, but the companies worked so hard and we were eventually back on electric the following evening, together with water, with electric cables just laid alongside the road. So many wooden poles were burnt and then we eventually got telephone/computer and TV back today!
Seriously, we are fine – we cancelled two lots of guests – mainly because we still have a lot of ash blowing about and the smell was not too good. However, we have had a good evening up in the village – BBQ’d chicken (not ours) and Bolo do Caco, plenty of beer and coffee, as it is a festa weekend!
Also my recent e-mail to Admin:
Have just returned from Santo Antonio Da Serra weekly fresh produce market – unaffected by the fires and gorgeous, sadly not so as you head towards Camacha…..
However, green shoots are already appearing……..and we had hugs and kisses from a roadside lady flower seller as we bought flowers and some replacement garden plants from her……she was safe, her house and family were safe and we were safe……amazing peoples!