And then the forest on the other side of the valley in front of us simply exploded…
It was a shocking sight to witness and it rammed home two things. The first was that, until that moment, we didn’t have a clue about the lightning speed by which a wildfire could travel. The second thought was that it was time to leave and let the fire-fighters get on with their unenviable task.
Over the last 24 hours Andy and I have been interviewed on radio and TV about the forest fires on Tenerife. It’s not a role either of us are comfortable with but it’s something we both felt was important to do, especially when there are headlines in the UK press such as the Daily Mail’s ‘Foreign Office warns tourists over Canary Islands wildfires as two fire-fighters are killed and 4,000 homes evacuated’.
The fact that the two fire-fighters who tragically lost their lives didn’t do so on the Canary Islands is just one of the misleading aspects to their sensationalist article.
The information we were able to share with the BBC came from first hand experience (our own and that of friends on La Gomera who have been living through a nightmare over the last few days), Tenerife Government press releases and reports directly from the emergency services.
Reams have already been written about the fires so I’m not going to go into facts, figures or hows and whys.
But our brief and accidental experience of the forest fire at Erjos in El Tanque coincided with the moment that the fires went from being stable to being a serious level 2 emergency. As we watched a terrifying display of nature’s ferociousness, we were exposed to some incredibly stupid human behaviour as well.
None but the Brave
You can’t praise the fire-fighting, emergency services and volunteers enough. Watching a whole hillside of forest simply burst into flames in a singular moment made us realise just how fire-fighters can easily lose their lives. The section of forest that exploded must have been about two hundred metres in length. The fire travelled that distance in the blink of an eye, fuelled by a hot wind that lifted temperatures to 40C. Two hundred yards in a moment. A change of wind direction and who knows where the fire could spread? It’s a risk that fire-fighters must have to face constantly.
Photographs showed that, despite nearby villages being evacuated hours earlier, there were still people on the terraces of houses closest to the fire; no doubt praying for salvation. Whilst their reluctance to leave their homes and possessions is understandable, there was nothing to be achieved by staying put; quite the opposite. If the fire had changed direction, then fire-fighters and precious resources would have to have been diverted to save them. There aren’t enough of these resources available in the first place to be able to afford to lose some of them saving someone who had ignored advice to get out long before the situation became life threatening.
When turning a corner in the road to be faced with a forest fire, it’s entirely natural to stop to have a look at what’s going on. For one, you want to make sure that you aren’t heading into danger. But what we saw people doing was crazily stupid. Some were driving as close as they possibly could to get a better view, then dumping their cars in the middle of narrow lanes and completely blocking access. Not only did it prevent emergency forces from getting through, a change of wind direction and it could have been a disaster.
Similarly, when we were trying to get out of the El Tanque area our departure was hampered by traffic jams on the TF82 caused by people coming up from the south west coast for a nosey. Having parked at the miradors above Santiago del Teide and realising there wasn’t much to see, many simply carried out U-turns on the main road, blocking it in both directions; again seriously affecting quick and easy access by emergency vehicles.
Friends in La Gomera have told us similar tales of how fire-fighters were hampered by ‘gawkers’, subsequently roads were closed to stop tourists and locals from getting in the way. I even read about coach excursions travelling from Tenerife into La Gomera’s worst affected areas last week. it’s irresponsible tourism in the extreme.
The fact that we were at Erjos when the fire took hold was a total accident. We were in the wrong place at the wrong time because we had business on the south west coast and had understood that the fires which started in El Tanque on Friday night were completely under control.
Had we known what was about to happen we wouldn’t have been there. We would have kept well away so that fire-fighters and emergency forces could get on with what was important, saving the island.