In this the latest instalment of our series on Living off-grid in Spain Josie tackles the hair-raising topic of what to in the event of a wild fire, or more importantly what do do before a wild fire!
Living “off grid” invariably means we live in the campo and one of the things we all need be aware of is the danger of “wildfires”.
As the summer heat rises so does the risk of the land around us catching fire. Here’s some things you can do to prepare for a forest fire.
Few of us have the water needed to fight back the flames and indeed the Bomberos (fire brigade) would prefer us not to try. Why? Because if we are on the ground the planes and helicopters cannot drop water onto the flames. Now whilst the size of the bucket beneath a helicopter can vary from 600-10,000 litres even the smaller amount dropped on your head is going to hurt or worse. Besides have you ever tried to put a fire out with just a bucket or hosepipe. It honestly is like spitting in the wind.
However, it’s human nature to try and do something. First you can create a firebreak around your home, not as a last ditch defence but as a prevention well in advance.
Fire, as you all probably know, can move at a phenomenal rate. Indeed it is virtually impossible for a human being to outrun a raging forest fire. Sadly even the professionals are periodically caught out and many firefighters have lost their lives when a fire cuts them off from escape.
Fires even without any wind fanning them can travel at around 9.5 kilometres per hour, or 6 miles-per-hour, in forests. Whilst on grasslands it can travel up to 22.5 kilometres per hour/14 miles-per-hour. If you have an upward-slope to your terrain, the flames can travel even faster; an extra 10 degrees of slope will double the speed. Yikes!
Now you can see why prevention is critically important. So, when planning your firebreak you should have at least 200 metres around your house, completely clear of any and all vegetation including trees. For those of us who live in the middle of groves, orchards and forests that can be a daunting task especially when the cutting down of any tree requires permission. All trees are considered protected. Up until recently it was nigh on impossible to get permission to remove trees but this has changed somewhat in the advent of what happened a couple of years ago. A devastating wildfire in the Flix/Bovera area of Catalonia destroyed over 5000 hectares and took many peoples homes and livelihoods with it. In the nearly 19 years I have lived here it had to be the worst wildfire I have ever seen. It spread so quickly one of my friends had to literally run for her life. Whilst two other friends ended up sheltering in their home along with their goats whilst the fire burnt everything around them. For a time it seemed nothing was going to stop it consuming everything in its path but eventually the fire fighter’s hard work paid off in the shape and form of a huge “firebreak”.
Plan your firebreak now
If you were to go outside right now and look around your home what would you see? Trees? Plants? Grassy areas. Maybe some astro turf? Ideally you would create 2 zones of “defensible space.”
Zone 1. Usually this area is no less than 6.5 metres wide and literally has no fuel (trees, plants) in it.
What? I hear you say… “nothing”? Well yes. Ideally, but we all know we don’t live in so sterile an environment. We have flowers, maybe a few cacti. A few shade trees. I can hear some of you saying “I am not cutting down or pulling out my flowers on the off chance a fire passes this way”. Of course this is totally up to you but did you know that failure to create and maintain a firebreak could affect any insurance claim you put in
Zone 2 can contain trees but they should not exceed a height of 6.5 metres. Most trees (cultivated) don’t come close to that height but those pesky pines might give you trouble.
In my experience trees such as pines “flash burn”. In other words they burn up very quickly often leaving the trunk charred but not burnt through. The way most fires spread is either through ground vegetation (this is why the “medi ambient” sometimes fine people for not cutting back the vegetation on their land) or through what is known as an “ember attack.”
An “ember attack” is when high-standing plant matter (like trees) catch fire and burning twigs, leaves, and pieces of debris are then carried upwards by the fires vortex. They can then be carried large distances by the wind, still smouldering. Any small, dry, easily flammable thing that it contacts can easily catch fire, from a leaf on another tree or the dried pine needles in a house’s rain gutters.
Do you remember my friend who had to run for her life? She literally had minutes to spare before her escape route was going to be cut off so she ran out of her house with nothing but the clothes she stood up in and her beloved dog. Thankfully her house was saved by the fire brigade but the van in which she kept all of her clothes did not survive, and because of the risk of the fire starting up again she wasn’t allowed back to collect so much as a toothbrush. Here’s something I was told by an American friend that has been invaluable to me over the years.
Bug out bag or if you prefer “a ready to go” bag. Your bug out bag might contain some of the following items:
At least one change of clothes.
Medication (if you take any and you have spare. Even if it’s just a pack of paracetamol you might be very grateful you have it, you never know).
Water. (At least a couple of bottles).
Max: I have to jump in here and list some of the items I have in my bug out bag:
Quality face mask (not the surgical kind)
Water sterilisation tablets.
A silver emergency blanket.
During the Flix/Bovera fire the authorities and The Red Cross were absolutely fantastic. They provided shelter for those who had to evacuate including food, water and even some clothing but it all took time to get organised. A bug out bag will make it a little more comfortable for you in the meantime.
Documents. Now I personally (on advice from my American friends) have a fireproof document folder. (You can find them on Amazon España for as little as €13).
In my fireproof folder I have the following documents:
Birth and marriage certificates.
Original residency documents.
Any other important documents I want to keep.
And a spare phone charger.
In the event of evacuation I can simply grab that folder and get the heck out. I even have one with family photos but if I can’t get them in time they also have a fireproof folder that should survive a fire
Pets and livestock.
First of all, decide if your plan is to evacuate your pets or leave them behind. If you plan to leave them behind there are things you can do to help them survive. Dogs and cats are usually pretty easy to evacuate, most of us would simply grab them and put them in the car and go, but before you do that ask yourself the following questions:
Where are their vaccination certificates.
Do you have food, water, bowls, leashes, boxes, and carriers for them?
Does your dog need a muzzle? In times of severe stress even the sweetest dog can become a liability so maybe consider having one to hand. Make it easier and quicker by creating a pet bug out bag and having everything ready to go, you could save a lot of stress and potential heartbreak.
In an ideal world we would all have carriers/travel cages we could put our birds in. But what if we haven’t or we have too many? There is an ingenious solution and it isn’t going to take up too much room in your car! Wrap your chickens in newspaper or towels. A friend of mine in the USA has done this and she said it was so easy and not in the least stressful for her birds because they actually go into a “torpid” state if you hold their wings close to their bodies. Even if they don’t I can imagine being burnt to death would be far more stressful.
If you don’t have the capacity to evacuate your larger animals such as goats, pigs, donkeys etc… creating a firebreak around their homes is a very good idea and could save their lives. Another option is simply to make sure you and/or your animals are registered at your house. This could be the difference between life and death in some instances. In the event of a fire the authorities check with the ayuntamiento whether or not anyone is living in the “fire zone” and if you’re registered at the address they will try their best to protect your property and any animals left there.
You can also mark your animals with your name and phone number and set them lose to fend for themselves, it might sound callous but animals are clever and they have good survival instincts. An easy way to mark your animals is to have a cardboard or plastic stencil ready for such an occasion and simply spray paint directly onto their backs. There are even natural sprays that won’t cause any harm. Of course in an ideal world we would all simply load them up on a trailer or put them in the back of a van and everything will be ok. In my case, however, I have 2 boars and 2 gilts (female pigs that haven’t bred yet). They weigh at least 100kg each and and none of them get along well enough to be safely stuffed into a trailer in the middle of a wildfire.
My plan is to release them into a larger area and pray they will be ok. Whatever you decide to do please stay safe and please listen to the authorities if they tell you to evacuate. No one wants to lose their home but neither do you want to be the one responsible for putting other people’s lives at risk. (Fire, Police, Rural Agents, your friends and neighbours).
If you think there might be a fire, don’t leave it to someone else to call it in. Even if you can’t speak Spanish (or whatever regional language they speak in your area) there will be someone on the end of the phone who can at least speak a little English and you might just save someone’s life!