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Olives, fire and ashes to nearly ashes – retrospect from Coronavirus times

To see more fire photos occasionally updated – I hope not though – please click here

A helicopter carrying water to fight a fire in Spain
A helicopter carrying water to fight a fire in Spain

It was November 15th and we neighbours had just taken the olives to be pressed. The harvest was less than half than the year before due to a lack of rain, hardly any in 18 months. Inevitably, odd campo fires dotted the scorched landscape and the bomberos (fire-fighters) were kept busy. In most fincas the olives dropped day by day to the ground in thirsty despair, the few remaining to be eaten by hungry birds.

 

The mill was empty and the presses quiet. Last year a queue of cars stretched down to the main road, but now we marched straight in. The owner took our humble offering of 1000 kilos and then told us somewhat irritably to come back the next day. Thus the traditional slap-up meal in a local bar while waiting in excitement for the oil to be extracted was off.  The mill needed more custom in order to justify putting the presses to work.

Olives going through the mill, El Maestrat, Spain
Olives going through the mill, El Maestrat, Spain
We went back to Atzeneta and had a few wines with acrid olives – long past their sell-by date. It was decided I would be the one to collect our oil as Felix was working in a masia far away. Simple things give pleasure. I was being given responsibility.

 

The next morning I awoke to a piercing blue sky, not a cloud in sight, a scrubbed vibrant colour stretching across the horizon. At 8.30 some workmen arrived to finish off a garden hut folly of mine – a conversion from the dreaded biomass boiler room – read the finca diaries 

 

I was lounging around in a towelled floor length tunic thing, a sort of dumpy Arab garment. Exchanging a wave from the window with the workmen, I returned to  my bed and coffee. I heard a whirr. Hum, I thought, is it a cement mixer? The whirr got louder and suddenly realizing what this might be, I jumped out of bed.
a helicopter in the Spanish mountains is a sign of something amiss
a helicopter in the Spanish mountains is a sign of something amiss
Bloody hell, yes, it was a helicopter. In these parts this is big news because it means either illness or fire. The clue is to look underneath at the landing skids and see if a water bag is attached. If so, it is fire. Well, read on.
A helicopter carrying water to fight a fire in Spain-3
A helicopter carrying water to fight a fire in Spain
This helicopter had no water deposit and was flying towards Atzeneta right past the house!  I ran for my camera and rushed out on the upstairs terrace, and climbed on a rickety iron chair, trying to balance myself in my tunic affair. The helicopter disappeared in the distance, but I was not overly worried about losing the shot. Experience has taught me that often this is one of many trips.
Water bag to fight fire in Spain
Water bag to fight fire in Spain
I ran downstairs and got a tall stepladder. The whirrs returned and this time there was a bag dangling underneath the helicopter. It circled around the mountain and started to descend in the direction of Atzeneta. Then I saw the smoke rising. It seemed to be quite far away, somewhere just off the main road.
An unintentional fire can easily get out of hand in dry Spain
An unintentional fire can easily get out of hand in dry Spain
Perching myself on top of the stepladder, still in the ridiculous tunic, I clicked away randomly. The workmen eyed me and the smoke briefly, then returned to work. This was re-assuring.   If it was serious, surely they would know?

 

All in all two helicopters passed 5 times, taking it in turns. The smoke gradually petered out, leaving just the brilliant sun, a pungent smell and an eerie silence punctuated by hammering workmen.

 

At noon, I went to get the olive yield. We had managed  80 litres of oil at 17.7% yield per kilo. Very good indeed. I drove straight to Felix’s to divide up the bounty and apportion the bill and to hopefully celebrate the high oil content.

 

The drive down their track was dire and a twinge of irritation seeped through me. For God’s sake couldn’t they level their drive a bit. After all Felix was a stone mason! I feared a burst tire (8 in 2 years so far – time for a 4×4, but funds lacking). Merche was at the end of the drive. I started to complain, but then she burst out “I had a fire. Oh Stephanie I had a fire!” She was totally distraught and showed me her burnt land and black trees.
A small fire that easily could have got out of hand in the Spanish mountains
A small fire that easily could have got out of hand in the Spanish mountains

All the neighbours apart from me had been there trying to put it out and stop it spreading across the road while I had been merrily photographing it. Felix had been called back from his work. In the end though, if it had not been for the flying firemen, the consequences probably would have been much worse than her small parcel of scorched land.

I stood there and tried to look helpful.  Felix emerged from the house and put his arms around Merche who sorrily explained that she had put ashes in a metal bucket two days before and left them in the yard. She thought they were cold. They nearly were for they took two days more to start a fire. Now she was worried about getting a fine – it can be as much as 10,000€.

After the fire, Spain
A fire a few years before, El Maestrat

Which goes to show. For if Merche had been in town and the wind had been stronger, they might have lost their home, especially as the affected land was adjacent to the house.

“I made no lunch because of the fire”, she reiterated from time to time. She was clearly in shock and I could see it would best if I went, but another part of me really did not want to.  Somehow I felt there was no closure yet. So I sort of hung around.

A bleak scene of destruction near Useres, Castellon. 6 years later and it is verdant again - though not the same
A bleak scene of destruction near Useres, Castellon. 6 years later and it is verdant again – though not the same
Luckily there was the oil and the payments to sort and that invariably led to a vino tinto for Merche’s shock. One wine led to another and soon the neighbours that had helped came back to check that all was well. Of course a few more bottles were opened and we tasted the oil with Merche’s homemade bread and salt. The intense piercing green of it promised much and it did not disappoint. It was slightly peppery, but in a delicious way and the smell of it was heady.
fire-baked land in El Maestrat, Spain
The consequences of land that does not regenerate after a fire – plants and trees can take a hundred years to even reach 1 meter height, in particular the native conifer species
We toasted each other and exchanged tales, including the time James blew up a skip in the middle of the night with much the same foolishness of ashes as Merche. Each story uncorked another bottle, another plate of oil, and we thanked our lucky stars that it had not been ashes to ashes, neither then, nor now. Eventually I made my way home and in the morning Merche was told no fine would be levied for her unfortunate accident. She was lucky. All bad tales have a better ending… I think and hope you know what I mean.
Looking at the ruin of his land, Spain
A devastated Spaniard looking at the ruin of his land, El Maestrat, Spain

To see more fire photos occasionally updated – I hope not though – please click here

4 Comments

  1. Miho
    May 21, 2020
    Reply

    Wishing there to be, peaceful green summer, autumn and winter this year. Specially after this pandemic….

    • stephanie de leng
      May 21, 2020
      Reply

      Me too. All of us, well most of us too…

  2. stephanie de leng
    May 21, 2020
    Reply

    Yes, it was, but I republished this as somehow it seems so far away from the times we are in now.

  3. Ingrid Spiegl
    May 21, 2020
    Reply

    So scary, and so close to home. Here’s hoping the rain will quickly regenerate the beautiful land and crops.

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