Wednesday, 23.01.2019
 Daily news from the Canaries and the islands' biggest English language newspaper on-line
Daily news from the Canaries and the islands
   Daily news from the Canaries and the islands' biggest English language newspaper on-line

By Barbara Belt
Eye witness acount of Valle Gran Rey
Our house is halfway down Valle Gran Rey in Casa de La Seda, where two barrancos meet. On either side, rock walls rise up almost a kilometre, causing sunrise and sunset to occur some time after the real event. Boxed in, and prone to peculiar winds and thermals, we enjoy views over fruit trees down to the sea.

27.08.2012 - When the fire started in the mountains, it was worrying, given drought conditions and the island's inadequate fire-fighting provision, but we never imagined the disaster would continue for over two weeks and destroy 4,500 hectares. It became apparent after week one that we were in real danger and we prepared as best we could, one eye on the thickening smoke, cutting down and carting away all surrounding plant life, rubbish, outside furniture....anything that could burn. The road out closed, we dumped everything away from houses, taking out gas bottles, watering till everything was soaked, and waited. By Friday night, the road was blocked behind our house. People higher up hid at home, under no illusion that firefighting forces would save their houses. The fire was out of control and roared into new life once darkness fell and the wind picked up. People passed that night behind our house, watching, fearing the worst. Women with men hiding at home were quietly frantic, as Guardia Civil blocked the road, threatening all who disobeyed them with 600 fines. We joked when TV cameras came. It was all surreal. I slept a bit that night, reassured by Alejandro and friends, who stayed with us in case. Saturday morning dawned smoking and hot. My exhausted daughters went to a baptism, incongruously glamorous. It was quickly over. Everyone was far too worried to enjoy it. Smoke poured into the valley and more people were evacuated. They drove past us crying and shocked. We wondered if we'd have to go. I said I wouldn't, my daughters were angry, but the road block and evacuation zone stayed the same. Inside the house, we threw everything into two back rooms, hopefully away from danger. Wet sheets, blankets and towels were tacked up behind wooden windows and doors. We soaked the house, inside and out, leaving water buckets all round. More greenery disappeared. Half an hour later, we saw flames licking the upper rim of the valley and knew we'd had it. We ran around wetting everything again, turning off electricity, unable to believe in any of it. There were sirens, screams of get out! get out!, choking smoke and incredible heat. Sophie saw the fire behind the house and screamed at Zia and I to get out. Zia's large boyfriend Ale burst in to get us out, apologetically carting me away. We joined the stream of cars heading for the port, the one place everyone knew couldn't burn. That there weren't multiple car accidents, that nobody was killed or injured, that we all survived, all these are miracles. Chaos reigned. The old and infirm were hauled into waiting ambulances and cars. Loudspeakers shouted conflicting advice. Councillors shouted, who's in control, who do we hand this over to? But there was, of course, nobody. Distressed people milled around in the port, looking for each other. Sirens wailed. Announcements were only in Spanish. Tourists had no idea what was happening and when they spotted us, came running. Sophie grabbed a mike to tell them in English not to rush the big ferries that had appeared out of the darkness. But everyone did. Scared stupid, they wanted out, and clambered aboard to safety. Reports gradually filtered through of what was happening. At 3.30 am, the fire was still raging in Casa de La Seda, burning everything. We decided we'd lost the house. Some brandies later, we heard our neighbour Nuria was in contact with Fabian, who'd hidden at home. We found her and asked her to please ask about our house. Waiting for his answer, trying to read her expression, I bit my tongue so hard that it still hurts as I write this a week later. At daybreak, we all gathered to plead with the Guardia Civil. Everybody wanted to get home. There was smoke, wind and heat. We knew it could start blazing again. Anti-riot police arrived as the crowd got angry. The house had survved the worst and I couldn't risk losing it after, so I waited till police weren't looking and slid down into the barranco, hiding behind rocks. Suki (dog) nearly gave me away, but then got it, crouching down to hide and run with me. People saw me and kept quiet. I was sure police would catch me when I crossed an open stretch and scrambled up the other side of the valley bed, but they didn't and I got home, shoved open the door and found everything inside, incredibly, intact. Filthy, wet, sooty, but intact. A small fire burnt in my former garden, picked up by wind. Water pipes had burst, but I turned an irrigation wheel below the house and, alleluia, out it flowed. There was nobody to see me, but I didn't know that and stupidly ran crouched over, adrenalin strong, carrying enormous buckets of water that I normally struggle to move. Other 'illegal' firefighters emerged. Goyo next door had crept up at daybreak. Fabian had never left and was exhausted. We patched water pipes and used hoses. Planes and helicopters roared up and down overhead, but everywhere was eerily quiet and deserted. Neighbours' houses had disappeared, others were burnt-out shells. There were surreal, untouched patches of green normality amidst charred black. We worked until we'd had it, lay down to sleep in Goyo's house, reckoning the wind would pick up late afternoon, and then woke up to small fires. We were full on again, but this time losing the battle. It was hot and windy. Fallen palm trunks burst into flame again. Our hoses didn't reach. Exhausted, I felt desperate for the first time. A fire engine rushed up the valley and I ran, but missed it. My Socorro!, scream reached them, they braked and came back. What heroes. Such calm! Such long hoses! They put it all out, congratulated us (?) and left to fight 30 metre flames raging higher up. Full on since Friday night, they were kind and patient, though enraged at the fire's total mismanagement. This last week has passed in a blur, dealing with the aftermath. Melted sewage pipes are repaired as water goes. Electricity fails when water comes. Phones sometimes work, internet rarely. Roadsides fill with charred remains of household effects and outside waste. Surreal announcements about dead animal disposal and warnings about bad water echo up the valley. Volunteer groups do their best. Of the eighty-five burnt houses, forty are irreparable. People have lost everything and we give clothes, bedding, lodging, whatever we can. Between all of us, we've opened an account for them. We're anxious to avoid any political involvement and have formed a 'people's platform'. Should anyone feel like contributing/spreading the word, here are the details: The account is at CAJA CANARIAS/CAIXABANK. These 20 digits contain all bank and account info: 2100-6756-67-0200020646 Iban number: ES06 2100-6756-6702-00020646 BIC/Swift number: CAIXAESBBXX Please continue to visit battered but beautiful Valle Gran Rey and the island. We need help, not a coup de grce delivered by the sudden disappearance of tourism.

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