By coincidence last week I changed the background of this blog. I’d experimented with plain backgrounds (in order to be taken seriously, but they seemed too serious) and seascapes and sand (I love to be by the ocean, it’s a big draw for me in making my home here, but I am very conscious that the outside world needs to understand that there is more to this island than beaches). Finally, I settled on a picture I took on a hike three years ago. It was New Year’s Day; there was an achingly-clear, blue sky, misty visions of the islands of La Gomera and El Hierro shimmering on the horizon over the bluest ocean, and in the foreground acres of simply beautiful pine forest. We were walking close to Ilfonche.
The photos I took that day remain some of my favorites of the island. On the occasions I need a photo which I think typifies Tenerife I usually go to that file first. The pictures seem to encompass ocean, mountains, island and forest, the main components which make up this island, giving it its special personality and atmosphere.
Returning south last Sunday from a day wandering the street market of Santa Cruz, we spotted a huge plume of smoke around the hillsides. It was what has been dreaded for over a year. Anyone who’s read my blog before, or follows me on Facebook, knows how often I use words like arid, barren, parched or dry when talking about the state of the landscape over the last couple of years. The last time I remember any substantial rain in the south of Tenerife was around two years ago, a bit more in fact. It happened the week I moved house, and I remember lying awake as it thundered on my roof terrace – I hadn’t had a roof terrace before, and had visions of it overflowing and making a waterfall down the stairway. It didn’t, and I don’t remember any more nights like that in the two years I lived in that apartment.
I took the photo around 5.30 in the afternoon. The fire had broken out around 3. By the next morning it was raging out of control. By the next day it had spread in every direction, despite the valiant efforts of 7 helicopters constantly dousing the area with water. At one point choppers were diverted to deal with a fire which broke out on neighboring island, La Palma, where they had more success. Two planes arrived from the mainland to join the helicopters. The were 3 press conferences a day updating us on the situation. An entire village and some smaller hamlets were evacuated as the flames got closer. All the emergency services sprung into action. I don’t name them in case I miss one out. All, both professional and volunteer were outstanding, but you have to especially think of the firemen. Gradually one front was brought under control, then another, though the fires still burn and are not, by any means, totally extinguished.
Each hike in recent months has re-enforced the sense of dread, as each one bore witness to the seared landscapes, ever drier. The subject of the dangers always came up in conversation at some point during a hike, especially when we saw a cigarette carelessly thrown from a car or noted cigarette ends along a trail. In the end it seems that it wasn’t smokers who caused the fire, but it could have been.
It seems at this point, and there is no absolute confirmation of this that I know of, that it began in a smallholding somewhere in the area in the first photo. One witness I saw on tv said something like, “Who would have thought that all this devastation could be caused by a little old bonfire?” My question would be, “Who would not have thought that before lighting a bonfire?” If it’s true, and I don’t know that it is, it was an act of crass stupidity, and/or arrogance.
Arrogance because we seem to be living in the culture which thinks that the rules don’t apply to them. “It will never happen to me.” I don’t imply this is true only of Tenerife, I see it just about everywhere, and it’s time that we stopped to think of others. I’m not, even, talking about the big issues, of wars, or famine or earthquakes. I’m talking about how we go about the minutiae of our daily lives; about whether we let our dogs foul the pavement; about whether how we park obstructs someone’s view at a crossroads; about how our cigarette smoke affects those around us or whether we toss our litter from the car window; about giving way on the supermarket aisle or a narrow street to those less agile or with bigger burdens or whether our dog’s incessant barking frays neighbors’ nerves, and, of course, the consequences of lighting a bonfire when the earth is tinder dry……and those are just off the top of my head. It’s time we thought about the consequences of our actions instead of our immediate needs or pleasures. Almost everything we do affects the life of another person in some way, and it’s time that we owned up to our responsibility.
If this fire was started, however accidentally, by such arrogance and stupidity then the law here has severe penalties, but it can’t restore trees which took decades to grow, destroyed crops which are peoples’ livelihoods or compensate for the heartache and panic. Really, it’s a shame that we have to look to the law to provide penalties to deter folk, and that we can’t just care enough about each other and the earth to be more responsible.