As Portugal’s wildfires swept in, this photographer battled to save his farm

With record heat and wildfire sweeping across Europe, Nat Geo's Matthieu Paley fought the flames on his farm outside Lisbon.
An area of olive trees on the edge of Paley's property was devastated by the fire.
Photograph by Matthieu Paley
By Craig Welch
Published 26 Jul 2022, 10:01 BST

By the time flames destroyed his tool sheds and began inching toward his home, Matthieu Paley had already doused his land with water and hurriedly propped up one end of his doorless, mobile chicken coop so the birds could escape out the bottom.

Portugal residents are familiar with wildfires. But on Thursday 14th June, as a record-breaking heatwave began its march across Europe, parts of the country topped 46 degrees Celsius, a July record. That helped ignite 170 fires in one day, blazes that broke out from the southern Algarve coast all the way to the country’s far north. Just outside Lisbon, the capital, flames rushed up the brushy slopes surrounding a historic castle in Palmela—a fire Paley watched from his yard as it raced toward his home near the village.

The National Geographic photographer is no stranger to climate change; he’d recently taken pictures of people suffering through extreme heat in Pakistan. But as this wildfire exploded and rolled onto his small farm—and as firefighters and police urged him to flee—Paley saw climate change racing to his front door.

Paley had rehabilitated the small farm over the past few years, focusing on restoring native trees and growing medicinal plants.
Photograph by Matthieu Paley
Photograph by Matthieu Paley

“I saw these huge flames coming toward me,” Paley says. Before then, “I didn’t think it could happen to me. I didn’t think it would happen here.”

Over the last week, as the U.K. hit 40 degrees Celsius (104°F) for the first time on record, excessive heat sparked massive fires across the whole of southern Europe. Flames prompted evacuations in Spain, France, and suburban Athens, turned gas tanks into bombs in Tuscany, and ripped through so many London neighbourhoods that Mayor Sadiq Khan told BBC Radio that firefighters had their busiest day since World War II.

(British wildfires are increasing. here's what that means.)

But while the fires for some countries, including France, were the worst in decades, new research published just last month suggests weeks like this may become a more frequent feature of European summers.

In this view before the fire, the property is surrounded by giant, invasive cane plants (Arundo donax), which took hold in the area decades ago and provided fuel for the wildfire. Paley plans to crowd out the cane with fast-growing, fire- resistant trees like willows and poplars.
Photograph by Matthieu Paley

Climate change has for years increased the severity and duration of heat waves and weather conditions that promote fire. But the continent’s ability to fight blazes has largely kept those fires in check—until the last decade.

Now, just as fires in Australia and California have ballooned into uncontrollable monsters that outpace firefighters’ ability to suppress them, “it appears we’re starting to see this shift in southern Europe as well,” says Jonfre Carnicer of the University of Barcelona, lead author of the study published late last month in Scientific Reports.

Extreme weather is leading to extreme fires that the Mediterranean region is struggling to put out. Paley, for one, sees that new reality as a reason to try and recalibrate how he lives.

A refuge under assault

A French native and a restless sort, Paley moved to Portugal a few years ago. Inspired by people he met while doing a story about the human diet, and wanting to become more self-sufficient, he and his family bought a few acres of pastureland outside Palmela. He read up on agroforestry, with an eye toward incorporating more native plants and natural processes into the farming he wanted to do. He planted cuttings of willow, poplar, elderberries, figs, and other fruit trees.

“I always thought it was such a spiritual experience to grow things and feed yourself and get engaged and have dirty hands full of earth,” Paley says. “And that’s been my obsession: living on the land in my little wooden house off the grid.”

But last Thursday dawned so hot that government officials, fearing sparks could easily start a fire, had asked people not even to operate machinery such as chainsaws. Sure enough, by late morning fire had broken out on the town's castle grounds, and a neighbour had asked Paley to help hose down his roof. The heat was crazy, and there was an unusual south wind. Some 45 minutes later, as a small group of friends looked on—they’d come to Paley’s place for a workshop on regenerative agriculture—the Palmela fire grew to 1,000 acres. “It just ran so quickly,” Paley says.

A helicopter made water dumps, but the flames raced through trees and invasive grasses and around noon pushed onto Paley’s land. There the fire burned through two equipment sheds, ruining gear and seeds, and destroyed a camper that friends had been living in. It burned many plants and irrigation materials. As it wound its way toward Paley’s house, he and his son grabbed the laptop and mementos.

“I was just praying ‘spare the wooden house,’” Paley says.

Flames did miss the house. No one was hurt. And though a neighbour lost a bunch of pigeons, Paley’s nine chickens survived, and roughly 70 percent of the trees he had planted didn’t burn either. Paley says he feels supremely lucky, especially knowing how thousands of other Europeans have fared.

Europe’s future has arrived

Europe’s heat wave, while short lived, has been devastating in part because so few people on the continent have air conditioning. In Spain and Portugal alone the death toll exceeded 1,700, a World Health Organisation official said on July 22. Many experts suspect deaths across Europe will be in the multiple thousands and won’t be fully tallied for weeks.

The medicinal plantings, not yet established before the fire hit, were badly damaged.
Photograph by Matthieu Paley

In the meantime, the continent has already seen nearly twice as many fires and more than twice as much land burned than in any year since 2006. Train tracks actually caught fire in England, while one blaze in Slovenia set off unexploded ordinance left behind from World War I, the Associated Press reported.

Scientists expressed confidence that climate change was a significant factor. While U.K. summer highs typically hover around 21°F, the chance of 40°C days “could be as much as 10 times more likely in the current climate than under a natural climate unaffected by human influence,” U.K. Met Office climate attribution scientist Nikos Christidis says.

He should know. Christidis was part of a team that reported just two years ago that the likelihood of hitting that 40ºC/104°F threshold in the U.K. was increasing rapidly. Christidis now says such extreme heat could occur once every 15 years by the end of the century, even with current pledges for emissions reductions.

At the edge of the village of Palmela, from the street overlooking Paley's land, an onlooker scans the scene during the fire.
Photograph by Matthieu Paley

The heat, in turn, is helping increase the seriousness of fires.

In his study, Carnicer, who worked on the European chapter of the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, found that even if we hold the global average temperature rise from fossil fuel burning to around 2°C, southern Europe would see 20 more days a year of extreme fire danger by century’s end. But if we let the globe warm by 4°C, there could be 40 more extreme fire days in the region.

From the ashes…

You might assume that Europe’s conflagrations, the dire projections for the future, and his own close call would have left Paley feeling a little down. They haven’t. He says he’s too headstrong to feel defeated.

“The fire didn’t alter my perspective on climate change,” Paley says. “It motivated me. It opened my mind.”

After the fire, volunteers try to repair the falling brick walls of Paley's equipment shed.
Photograph by Matthieu Paley

A few days later, with the ground around his home blackened, Paley was already installing new irrigation systems and thinking about trying to grow plants that would increase his land’s fire resilience. He’s contemplating putting trees in places that might drive out the dry, reedy fire-prone invasive grasses, for example. 

In the end, he and his friends even held their agricultural workshop. They just did it on charred ground, the day after Paley nearly lost his home.

It was “15 to 20 people surrounded by ashes,” he says, “thinking about how we can regenerate a landscape—and find hope.”

When he returned to his land after the fire passed, he was shocked to see that the chickens had never left the coop; they had remained huddled there as the flames and smoke swirled around them. They’ve already begun laying again, he says.

For updates on Matthieu Paley and his farm, follow him on Instagram.

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