I Got Trapped in a Burning Forest
Looking down, my stomach lurches. The dried up river bed has turned into a winding flow of flames, the dry vegetation and leaves that accumulated in the dip burning like paper. The worst of the forest fire is over, and yet it still looks like a scene from the apocalypse — the biggest trunks are still on fire, the ground is covered in ash, there is smoke everywhere and heat radiating from the ash on the ground, the still burning trees.
Sometimes you don’t realise how bad something is until it is over. When a hangover and a sea of empty bottles make you realise how drunk you got, when breaking up feels like taking a deep breath of fresh air.
It is the same with fear. When you are in the midst of it, you are carried by pure adrenaline. Once you are safe, you realise how close you had come to danger. While the forest was burning all around the farm I was staying on, I didn’t feel scared. I had one of those moments of calm in the face of danger, where your mind is sharp and attentive, calculating. We’d been watching the flames move closer for hours. They started on the other side of the hill. Then they were 5 kilometres away, 3 kilometres. 1 kilometre.
The cats were panicking, sensing the smokey air and the sudden stillness of the jungle. All the wild animals had run away. One of the cats was following me around, rubbing up against my legs and not letting me out of her sight. The other ran around in circles, chasing its tail, and then hid, far up at the top of a cinnamon tree.
500 metres. We can’t wait any more.
We had to get out of there. I was the only person left on the farm, except the caretaker, and he was reluctant to leave his home, he said. He wanted to do anything he could to save it. But you can’t fight a forest fire, not one that has been burning for days in a forest so dry it burns like petrol. He was armed with a small hose, confident that water against fire would always win out. When the fire is that hot, water evaporates before it even touches the flames. I know all this because in the south of France, forest fires ravage the countryside every year. My ex-boyfriend watched them from his window when he was younger, and told me horror stories about his acquaintances, whose houses had been destroyed by fire.
I insisted. We had to leave.
The fire now licking the edges of the farm, we grabbed the animals and started running down the track, through the pine forest below, to get away. We stopped at a farm, halfway down the mountain, outside of the zone that was burning. All night we watched the flames move across the hill, the sky a blood red. The next morning, we thought everything was clear and returned to check on the farm. The buildings were, thankfully, intact, but the vegetation all around the farm was black, and in some parts, still burning. The forestry department had arrived, and were fighting the fire using rakes and tiny hoses. They fought for hours. The flames moved from above the farm to below the farm, blocking the only track down, cutting us off from the outside world.
We were trapped in the middle of the flames, again. We had to get out, through the still burning forest.
We stepped into the jungle. Where the floor used to be lined with pine needles that smelt sweet and christmassy, now it is lined with still hot ash, burning through the soles of my shoes.Tree stumps are alight. Huge trees are alight, fire burning through their bases, radiating heat. Every now and then we hear the clunk of another tree falling.
One tree, dangerously close to the path, 100 metres tall with a trunk one metre thick, has been knawed by the fire, like a huge comical bite mark, and is only holding on by a thin strip. It’s gonna fall. We know it. We have no other option. We run under it. When we are out of sight, we hear it clunk to the ground. Fallen trees block the path. At one point, we have to scramble over mounds of burning ash, which leaves blisters on my hands. When we get too close to flames, the air is scorching and hard to breath.
It’s a relief to finally reach the bottom, but it’s devastating too, because that is when the realisation hits. I burst out crying.
The beautiful forest, full of life, smelling of sweet pine, is reduced to ash and the smell of smoke.
I had the opposite of a sense of déjà vu — the sense that what I was experiencing and the way I was feeling will be repeated over and over in the coming years, watching the environment die at an impressive speed.
We are watching the fire moving closer.
We can still stop it.
We can almost still stop it.
Soon it will spiral out of control; soon, everything we do will only increase the flames.