The view from our office window
Photo by Oliver Neilson
Friday 26th July 2013
4.30pm I’m in Palma with my daughter when I hear about the fire. It’s burning vigorously in Sa Coma which is a few miles away from s’Arracó where we live. Every hour or so I call my husband, who is at home working, and then I start to see my neighbours posting photos on Facebook and Twitter of big, big bellowing clouds of smoke. A quiet anxiety begins to niggle away at me and I ask my husband to get our cats inside, and put them in a room where he can quickly put them in a travel box if need be. The hours go by. The fire moves closer to our house and our village which only the day before had been the stage for a brilliant Night of Art attended by thousands of people.
7.30pm My husband calls, he has to go out to see a client, so he releases the cats and leaves for Bunyola in the middle of the island.
9.30pm My seven year old daughter and I head for home. In Palma the sky is already dark. I know that the fire fighters in the helicopters can’t fly at night as it is too dangerous, so the fires will continue to burn unchecked. But I don’t truly appreciate what this is going to mean.
As we journey home we talk about the fire. I don’t want to frighten my little girl but I also don’t know what to expect. I ask her what three things she would want to take from the house if we had to leave quickly. She says “The three things I would take are Mummy, Daddy and Toffee” (her favourite toy). I explain that she was already on my list. We reach the crest of the hill: the town of Andratx is laid out before us. The sky is on fire. We both gasp.
I start gabbling, over and over, “oh my god, oh my god”. I drive slower than I usually would through Andratx towards our village as I am not looking at the road; I am looking at the fire. The hills are glowing red, it is as if there is molten lava running down them and I can see flames. We are in a 4D volcano disaster movie. It’s incredible to look at, is it really okay to even be this close to the fire?
We drive from Andratx towards s’Arracó. The sky darkens and I start to think that our village has got away with it. Up, up on the winding country road to the top of the valley bowl, but as I turn the car into s’Arracó I have to slow down to a crawl. The landscape to the right of the village is alight.
When we get to our house which is on the main road of the village I am not surprised to see that all of my neighbours out. It’s a sharp contrast to the 24 hours before when we were all out celebrating the Night of Art and having a wonderful time at our home grown cultural fiesta. Tonight should have been a night to rest after our big party; we were all feeling a bit bleary already.
My opposite neighbours, Carlos and his family, are all on his first floor balcony window gazing at the flames. He is shirtless and wearing only his underpants: the air temperature is still tropical even though it is now 10.30pm. I hear him talking about his land, which is what he is looking at, it is on fire. He keeps animals up there and he hasn’t been allowed by the police to go up to release them.
As soon as we go into our house the cats appear. I decide not to feed them as I want them to stay close in case we need to evacuate. They lie on the cool tiles in the kitchen, chilling their bellies.
My daughter and I pack her things: a change of clothes, toothbrush, Toffee, and two more things special to her. We put them all in her pink suitcase and leave it by the door. Then she watches some TV and ignores the fire. I don’t. I can’t. Every time I look out of my home office window the flames are getting closer to us and filling the view. It’s compelling.
My friends and neighbours in the village keep in touch with each other through Facebook. We are taking photos and updating each other. The roads behind our village which travel off into the hills towards St Elm are closed and the properties there are evacuated by the Guardia. I hear of one family who are told to get out of their house and not expect it to be there in the morning. I don’t feel fear or panic, I feel numb. I can’t comprehend it.
I pack more things. What would we take if we had to evacuate? Passports, papers, work things, computers, cameras, clean pants, cats. Where would we go? We get offers from a lot of friends; we know we will be okay for somewhere to stay. I look at the contents of my house. We have a piano. What if it was burnt? Would the keys be left behind like the instrument’s teeth?
I speak to my father who lives in the Sa Coma valley and has decided to stay in his house with his wife. He thinks the wind has changed and they aren’t in any danger. I decide to believe him as he understands a lot more about wind directions than I do, given that he is a sailor .
11.30pm. The wind is picking up. I stand in our back garden and watch the hills glowing red with patches of embers. It’s beautiful to look at, but deadly to be in. I wonder about the animals that are in harm’s way. The wind is blowing from behind the fire directly towards our house and the rest of the village. The possibility that we will have to evacuate seems very real.
We watch and we decide that if we can see flames on the hills closest to us we will go. One of my friends on Facebook tells me that if the smoke stings our eyes that it is time to hit the road. Our community vigil begins.
The flames creep over the hills and continue to travel towards St Elm. My friend who lives there reports that Sa Trapa is on fire as well. She is watching and waiting for her time to move as well.
We are in limbo. It’s as if we are all expecting a birth. We are waiting for nature to take its course. I keep busy and tidy the house; I put out the rubbish to be collected, which seems ironic as who knows what is going to happen? Perhaps by the morning there won’t be a house. I pack and prepare as if we are going on a holiday. It feels the same: putting plants in the bath, and doing a load of washing.
12.30pm We sit, we wait, we drink tea. There are a lot of people on the streets, a lot of cars moving around and doors being slammed. Our neighbours are loading their cars as well. Another of our neighbour’s sons is trying to find a safe place to park their car, it’s a classic Mini Moke and he is under strict instructions to get it away.
1.30am Water trucks drive down our street, one after another after another. The hydraulic brakes all hissing at the same point on the curve of the road. Standing in our garden I can see the tongues of flames licking the palm trees in the distance.
2.30am I lose count of the number of water trucks, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty trips? The police are on the street again. It is the height of summer but the smoky air in s’Arracó makes it smell like winter and Christmas. The hours pass and the flames rage.
4.30am The wind calms and the fire begins to redirect itself.
5.30am The bin men pass by and I smile to myself as they stop to collect our trash. Hope prevails.
6.30am Daylight comes and with it the wind begins again. We can’t see the extent of the damage to our beautiful valley as everything is wrapped in a thick veil of smoke, but I can still see flames. The helicopters start to fly again. I hear that our friends’ evacuated houses are okay, and it’s then that the tears come.
7.30am The suitcases are still by the door, but we decide to feed the cats. We pray for the wind to be still. The local cockerels start to crow.
First published on Sunday July 28th in the Majorca Daily Bulletin