As It Happens

How one survivor escaped Portugal's 'fiery tornado' unscathed thanks to the kindness of strangers

Gareth Roberts was on his way back to the central Portuguese village he calls home when he found himself surrounded by fire in every direction.
Firefighters work to put out a forest fire near Bouca, in central Portugal. The country is observing three days of national mourning for the dozens killed in the wildfires. (Rafael Marchante/Reuters)

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Gareth Roberts was on his way to the central Portuguese village he calls home on Saturday when he found himself surrounded by flames in every direction.

Roberts, 36, a U.K.-born man who lives in Macas da Dona Maria, was returning home from a vacation in Spain with his friend when they hit a highway roadblock and were directed by police to revert to a mountain road. 

"We were driving up the mountain road and suddenly the fire appeared on the right-hand side, and in less than a minute it had jumped to the left-hand side. The wind that accompanied it was so strong," Roberts told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"And in less than two minutes, the fire was behind the car, at both sides of the car, and closing in on front. All you had to do was continue driving. There was nowhere else to go."

Gareth Roberts and his friend were almost home when they were redirected away from the fire by police. But then the winds changed. (Gareth Roberts )

They ended up in the small village of Mo Grande, with fire blocking every exit. Trapped, they pulled over, and got out of the car, unsure of what to do next.

"And, thankfully, that's when we were rescued by a villager," Roberts said. 

 'It was like a living nightmare.'- Gareth Roberts

A British man was outside hosing down his house when he shouted at Roberts and a group of other stranded travellers to come into his home.

The Good Samaritan's mother lived in a ground-level attached apartment that had stone walls. Roberts and about 10 others took refuge there.

"You could hear the fire. You could feel the air. All you could see from the windows were the red embers. It sounds dramatic, but it was a fiery tornado. We all fell to  the ground to try and breath through the smoke. It was so, so smokey," he said.

"And I think the moment where I sort of became overwhelmed was when you realized everybody in the room with you was sending text messages and making phone calls to their families saying, 'This is it. This is the end. I just wanted you to know that I love you. I'm going to die.'"

Gareth Roberts and other highway commuters ended up stranged in the village of Mo Grande, with flames blocking every exit. (Gareth Roberts )

Roberts texted his own parents in Macas da Dona Maria to let them know where he was. Soon after, they lost their cellphone signals. 

"Some people were wailing. Some people were praying. I, myself, started to pray, thinking this can't be how it ends. It cannot end this way," he said. 

"And the lady of the house, the gentlemen's mother whose room it was, just kept talking. She would talk about anything to keep people's minds, or try to keep people's minds off of what was happening outside."

But what was happening outside was hard to ignore.

"Everything was just so intense — the colour, the heat. It just, it rained fire. It covered everything," he said. "It didn't look like something of this Earth."

It took about an hour, he said, for the blaze to tear through the entire village. 

Roberts was trying to make it home to Macas da Dona Maria when he found himself stranded in the village of Mo Grande, near the town of Pedrogao Grande, where a massive wildfire killed dozens. (CBC/Google Maps)

"All of a sudden, out of the window you just saw a few seconds of the daylight through the smoke and you realized the smoke was thinning," he said. "Up until then it had been pitch black, even though it was relatively early in the evening."

The group started to emerge from the home. Roberts  looked around. As far as he could see, only the home they'd taken refuge in and one other were untouched by the fire.

"The best way I can describe it is almost ... sort of post-apocalyptic. It was like a living nightmare," he said.  "And that's one village out of hundreds and hundreds that's been affected. I cannot imagine where we begin to clean up and go from here."

More than 1,500 firefighters in Portugal are still battling to control major wildfires in the central region of the country, where dozens have died. (Rafael Marchante/Reuters)

Portugal is observing three days of national mourning after 62 people were killed in a wildfire Saturday night around the town of Pedrogao Grande, not far from the town Roberts and the others became trapped in. 

As of Monday, more than 1,000 firefighters were still attending that blaze about 150 kilometres north of Lisbon, Reinforcements are due to arrive Monday, including more water-dropping planes from Spain, France and Italy as part of a European Union co-operation program.

Roberts made it home on Sunday, then decided to keep moving further inland, until he arrived at the village of Tomar, where he's staying in a hotel until it's safe to go home. 

Gareth Roberts is now waiting out the wildfires in a hotel in Tomar, Portugal. (Gareth Roberts )

He credits the family that took him in with saving everybody's life that night.

"There is no doubt in anyone's minds had they not shown the kindness and the generosity they did, we would all be dead," he said.

"And I don't know how you begin to thank somebody who has saved your life. Words are simply — they're not enough. There are not enough words to thank somebody who's done that for you."

Portugal's national bank has posted an online resource for those wishing to donate to the fire's victims. 

​With files from Associated Press


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