Woke up on Monday of last week to see a massive smoke cloud billowing into the sky from what looked like the side of the volcano. First thoughts were, ‘shit, the volcano’s gone up’.However, it turned out to be a massive forest fire in the upper reaches of Los Realejos, a municipality that lies on the other side of the valley from us. It was obvious from the smoke cloud that this fire wasn’t the norm and with temperatures pushing 40 degrees and the Sorroco wind fanning the flames the situation was likely to get worse before it got better. To make matters worse, fires had broken out on three of the surrounding islands and our copters were absent, fighting a blaze on La Palma.
Fires aren’t strangers to these islands, especially during dry summers, so I expected there were emergency plans ready to be put in place when, rather than if, a ‘big one’ occurred.TV coverage didn’t fill me with faith though, throughout the day images were screened of bushes spontaneously combusting next to yellow uniformed fire-fighters, who seemed to be staring at the flames, unsure of what to do next, but as camera work here can be unbelievably frustrating, it’s possible that the cameraman didn’t figure that shots of fire-fighters actually tackling the fires would be reassuring to viewers.
As the afternoon progressed, the fire spread despite the return of the helicopters which tried to douse the affected areas by dropping gigantic buckets of water, but by nightfall darkness revealed how terrifying the situation had become. From our terrace, we could see two large areas of the ridge above the valley in flames, the sky a deep orange. The TV reported that the helicopters were unable to continue working after dark, but then came rumours that seem too incredulous to be true, that the fire-fighters on the ground had also ceased fighting the fires after dark. Whatever the truth, by morning the fire was pretty much out of control and had spread westwards, destroying farmland, houses and livestock. A friend in a remote agricultural valley was awakened at four in the morning and told she would have to evacuate as the fire was almost at the head of the valley where she lived.
We put her up for the night and together we spent much of the day watching with dismay as the blaze continued to rage, destroying some of the most beautiful countryside on the island as well as many people’s homes and livelihoods despite the best attempts of fire-fighters, volunteers and helicopters.
By Wednesday the wind subsided, the weather cooled and the fire changed course and headed south west, thankfully for our friend bypassing her valley by a few kilometres, but unfortunately devastating the beauty spot of Masca. As the day progressed it was finally brought under control, or had run its course, depending on who you talk to.
Local news reported that up to 13,000 people had been evacuated, and up to 15,000 hectares of land destroyed in what was turning out to be the worst ecological disaster to hit these islands for years. As we scoured the internet for some accurate and objective reports about the extent of the fire, we were horrified, but not surprised, by some British press stories which, completely ignoring those who were actually affected by the fires and had turned them into sensational reports about tourism. Headlines such as ‘Tourists Flee Tenerife fires’ conjured up images of tourist grabbing their beach towels and fleeing across the sand with the fire snapping at their feet.
If you happen to be planning on visiting Tenerife soon and are having second thoughts because of the stories about the fires, don’t worry, no tourist was ever in danger, if they had been, the outcome might have been a bit different; at worse they were merely inconvenienced by not being able to visit some popular beauty spots. The truth is many tourists in major resorts in the south of the island probably didn’t know much about what was happening on the other side of the island, but then reports about the destruction of farmland, ancient forests and livestock wouldn’t sell as many papers.