For three days I have been watching the skies here in the mountains of the South of Spain. Yes, I do have better things to do. But right now, watching the skies is important.
In the distance, come 50 kilometres away and depending on how strong the wind is blowing, there are forest fires in the pine forests, eucalyptus trees and mountain bush that is tinder dry given that temperatures have climbed well above into the 40s this summer.
For the past three days, I can see a huge plume of smoke in the sky. The dark, grey plume is a constant stream — as if the largest jet plane you could ever imagine left a long and wide contrail across the clear blue sky.
The smell of burning pine hangs in the air too. It is there, distinctive. And the stronger its smell becomes, the more worrying it is.
Many of the forests here are dominated by large eucalyptus trees. Walking under their shade, one normally can detect the slight medicinal smell from the trees and their unusual bark covering that shed in a stringlike material.
Once these trees catch fire, they burn with a fury and intensity that firefighters fear. The wood is rich in oil that is so sought after to cure ills and ailments — but it burns fiercely and is hard to fully extinguish.
The hills too are full of old olive groves, and when they catch fire, they are difficult too to extinguish.
And across this region there is a natural scarcity of water. It is dry, arid and a tinderbox.
For weeks now, Spanish authorities have placed electronic signboards by the sides of roads and motorways warning drivers that the countryside is parched and ready for fires. Those who dare throw a cigarette from a car window face the stiffest of fines and the sternest of actions — and rightly so.
Even buying a disposable barbecue is considered to be the act of pyromaniacs. In normal times, those are sold at petrol stations and at convenience stores, along with the meats and fishes that taste so good over charred coal. But not now. They have been removed from the stores.
Smell of pine and eucalyptus
Yesterday, my apartment patio was covered in a fine white ash, blown from the advancing fires. Advancing? Yes. If the wind blew the ash here, then the flames are being fanned in my direction. For most of the day, the plumes were directly overhead, the smell of pine and eucalyptus more intense.
Thankfully, as the evening progressed, it slowly turned away, heading out towards the Mediterranean. In my immediate world, and in the best traditions of nimbyism, it was heading elsewhere, to the south, towards the international playground of Marbella that lies to the south and its path.
For two decades in the news business I lived in Canada. There, each summer, massive wildfires could be expected to burn across much of the North and western provinces of that vast and beautiful land.
The blazes always made for a busy news cycle when normal news fell away during August as politicians and officials heading to their cottages and lakes for a summer break. Because those fires seemed so far from Toronto or Ottawa where I lived, they were of little personal concern — like any other natural disaster befalling others. But they were at arms’ length, on a page or on a screen. Just words and images that filled my working hours of those given days I worked.
This is different. It is nature’s way of kicking me for being so indifferent then to the plight of others. Here, watching the skies and sniffing the air, it is starting to get personal.