On a recent trip to northeast Portugal, I met Vanessa Perdigão, an artist and, with her husband, a winemaker in the Dão region, under the name of Quinta do Perdigão. We met many wine producers and tasted a great selection of Encruzado’s and Touriga Nacional, Alfrocheiro, and Tinto Roriz wines. The high quality of these wines I’ll write about in a separate piece very shortly.
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What struck us as we drove between tastings was the huge numbers of charred trees, bleakly huddled together, shocked and petrified. The story told here by Vanessa is an account of the fire that took place in 2017 that decimated the land, natural habitats, peoples homes and their lives, as well as leaving a haunting imprint of the terror that nature can wield.
The underlying causes of the fires are a combination of drought conditions and a strong wind that helps it spread at great speed. The world is now witnessing forest fires on a scale that cannot be ignored. The carbon emissions from the way we live and power our civilisation are driving the extremes of weather that include drought. This true story is a tragic example of how climate change is a problem of today, not for 2030 or 2050. The pace and scale of these impacts is also accelerating as humanity continues to ignore the scientific evidence of what we are doing.
The wildlife on the labels are painted by Vanessa.
A personal story by Vanessa Perdigão (3rd from right in above photo):
Climate change, unpredictability
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I understand now the importance of living where you farm, as the relationship you create with your environment is essential to understand what goes on, on a daily basis. To give you a small example of this, last year was a difficult year in the vineyard. A lot of rain, so a lot of mildew. Over the past decade, the timings of what we do in the vineyard has changed unpredictably, and we can no longer follow the traditional times of the work that takes place throughout the year.
What happened last year was that at the time of the summer when one would usually remove the leaves that cover the grapes for the final maturation, we decided not to, as we could feel it was getting exceptionally hot. We were lucky to have been here to understand this, as most people removed the leaves, and we had a week of intense heat that turned the grapes that were exposed to the sun to jelly! I had never seen sunburnt grapes before, but it was terrible. Many lost half of their crop to this!
Exceptional heat waves
The worst example of the unpredictability of the weather was in October 2017. The year was again exceptionally hot, with terrible wildfires all over the country, one tragically taking the lives of 64 people in July in Pedrogão Grande.
I have grown up in Portugal, so I know that we have wildfires, and have witnessed over the decades the disappearance of so much of our natural wealth. So many of these fires are criminally set or through lack of responsibility and pure carelessness. In the mountains, the shepherds start small fires to clear land to graze their sheep on. These fires often get out of control.
Finally, there is now a law protecting the land from construction. In the past, if protected land was burnt, it would be possible to build on it after a fire. Logging, eucalyptus plantations has become a dreadful problem as it is treated as forest when it isn't indigenous forest but an invasive species that has rapidly become one of the largest crops that Portugal has.
Eucalyptus spreads its seeds in fire
Eucalyptus is highly destructive as it drains the land of all its' natural nutrients, drains the soil of all water, and is highly flammable. Plus it benefits from fire, as it scatters it's seeded through the fire, and can regrow, withstanding very high temperatures. It saddens me when we see paper as a solution to use instead of plastic, as I see the destruction caused by the paper pulp industries that rely on eucalyptus as their main source. So much habitat is destroyed for paper. Where plastic by far has to be totally removed from our daily lives, other alternatives have to be responsible ones. Most people are unaware of the destructiveness of the eucalyptus.
Another problem, a very serious one, with the setting of fires, is the fire fighting industry. The aeroplanes that fight the fires are privately owned and are on contract for the fire fighting season. Most of these aeroplanes are paid for by the day. Firefighters are paid to fight fires, not paid to protect the forest. In France, firefighters are paid for protecting the forest, for fires that don't happen, whereas here they only get paid when they go and put a fire out. We no longer have forest guards. This job disappeared, I think, somewhere in the late 1980s. The list of why fires happen is tragically tremendous.
‘4 columns of smoke…’
On the afternoon of the 14th of October 2017, we met up with a group of friends at our neighbours' house, about 1km from us, just above the river Dão. A lovely family with 2 teenage daughters and a beautiful home that Ana, the mum of the family designed, as she is an architect. It had been an unusually hot summer, and for that time of the year, it was unbearably hot. I remember feeling the week before that things were just not right, to the point that I decided to talk to our 6-year-old about what to do in case of a natural catastrophe. Portugal is sitting on a fault line, so earthquakes can happen. I remember as a child being taught what to do if there is an earthquake, so, as I felt this unease, I decided that the best thing to do would be minimally emotionally prepared for any eventuality.
So on this afternoon, we could see 4 columns of smoke in different directions, but at a distance that we never felt would affect us. As the afternoon progressed, all communications disappeared, there was no internet, no landlines working, but still the columns were so far away, with towns and villages between us and the flames, that we really didn't think they could get to us. That evening we went to a concert, Brahm's Requiem, at the cathedral in Viseu, and came home at about midnight. Still no signs of the fire coming close.
‘The emergency we talked about was happening’
At about 3 am, José, my husband awoke to the sound of explosions in the distance, went to the window, and saw that fire was in the forest just the other side of the dirt track from the farm, between our home and our friend's home that we had been at that afternoon. At the same time, friend's that had been staying at our friend's house rushed up to the house by car, hooting and shouting at us to get out, that they had managed to drive through the fire, and that it was about 200 metres from the farm too.
In 2 minutes I grabbed what I thought was important and threw it into a bag, woke our son up and said to him that that emergency that we had talked about was happening, so he had to just follow our orders and do everything quickly and calmly. He was amazing and did exactly that. The fire was where the only exit by car is, so we knew we had to get out fast. The choice to stay and fight the fire wasn't there. Electricity was down, so the pump to the well wouldn't work. We don't have water tanks or a swimming pool, so no reservoir of water, the lake was dry from the extreme heat of the summer.
There were no firefighters available at that time, although we didn't know, the fire was so big that there weren't enough fighters to get everywhere. The whole district was cut off as the 4 columns of smoke we had seen had advanced in such a way that every single access route by road had been cut off to our whole district. We later learnt that the contracts for the fire fighting aeroplanes had finished for the year 2 weeks beforehand, so there were no planes on hand during the day to put the fires out before they got out of control.
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Flames double the height of the forest
As we rushed out of the house, I opened the studio door, as the cats sleep in there, to let them loose. I opened the gate to the field where our mare is, managed to grab one of our dogs, the other 2 bolted. We got in the car and drove. I have never seen a fire like that in my life, and I truly hope never to see anything like that again. The flames were so high that they were double the height of the forest.
The sky appeared to be on fire just from the light that came from this self-feeding beast. I realised that there is absolutely nothing you can do in the face of that. It was the hardest thing I have ever done, to drive away from our home, our family business, my studio. Ironically I was working at the time on an exhibition that was to go to the Natural History Museum in Lisbon on animals that were endangered on the Iberian Peninsula and animals that had gone extinct during my lifetime (Title of the exhibition was "Too late to (give a) fuck...).
I had about a year's work, plus all my materials, books, older works that I have kept for myself, 25 years of being an artist sitting in there. The winery was full of years of our bottled wine, as we age the wine for a few years before selling. We didn't have time to take a thing. We drove away thinking that that was it. We were going to lose it all. All we had was each other, and one of our dogs.
It was like a war zone
We drove into Viseu, which is the main city 9 km from us, thinking that that would be the safest place to be. Hundreds of people had done the same thing. Through the smoke we saw that the main avenue that leads up to the city was lined with cars, hundreds of them, people standing by them looking completely lost, bewildered. It felt like we were in a war zone where we had been attacked whilst sleeping. Everyone was dazed, not knowing what to do.
We drove to Luis's house, one of the people who works with us, and stayed with him and his wife for the night. In the early morning, my husband went out to the town hall, as this is where he works during the day as an architect, to see what needed to be done. I tried contacting various members of friends and family to see how everyone was and to let people know that we were okay.
At about 10 am, my husband managed to get word to me to say that he had managed to get back to the farm and that everything was intact. The fire had changed direction about 100 meters away from the top of the farm, the wind had taken it down the other side of the valley and it had finally extinguished itself there. Our friends had managed to rescue their house but lost everything on their land.
Europe’s largest fire - so much destroyed
That fire was the biggest fire Europe has ever seen. 220,000 hectares were burnt. Lives were lost. Some of the lives that were lost were the older people in the villages who, when they saw that they would lose everything, decided that it wasn't worth leaving. Homes, livelihoods, natural reserves, forest, thousands of heads of cattle, so much was lost. Can we put it down to climate change? I am an artist, and a farmer, and am aware of all the reasons that fires start, naturally and by human negligence. And there were so many factors that could have halted the fire, but the weather conditions were definitely the main reason for this terrible tragedy.
Afterward - tremendous scar
There is a tremendous scar in the region, a scar that became a before and after moment. A before the fire, or after the fire. But I still question whether people actually understand that this was a warning of how our future will look if we don't do something now. Very fast, and on a national level. So much has to change. And it really is up to us. My son panics when he sees smoke columns now. And he didn't lose anything that he understands as his, but it makes me aware of what has to be changed so that he has a future in this beautiful corner of the world.
Quinta do Perdigao wines are imported to the UK by Portuguese Vinhos