To the people of Cuglieri, a small hilltop village on the Italian island of Sardinia, the tree was simply the “patriarch”.
During its long life – estimates of its age range from 1,800 to 2,000 years old – the olive tree became a behemoth with a trunk 11 feet or 3.4 meters wide and an integral part of an ancient landscape in western Sardinia. But after a large area of vegetation and numerous farms and villages in the region were destroyed by one of the largest wildfires for decades, time finally caught up with the patriarch.
The old olive tree was engulfed in flames and its giant trunk burned for almost two days.
In a fire that reached Cuglieri in late July, the agricultural community with about 2,600 inhabitants lost 90 percent of its olive trees, most of the sources of income. More than 1,000 people were evacuated from the city, which is hidden between a mountain covered with cork and oak trees and the Mediterranean Sea.
Now local residents and authorities are putting their hopes of survival on their old olive tree on Gianluigi Bacchetta, a professor at the University of Cagliari and the director of its botanical gardens, who is trying to bring the patriarch back to life.
“The patriarch is our identity,” said Maria Franca Curcu, responsible for the cultural and social policy of Cuglieri municipality, and her voice broke. “If we can save him, we can give a message of hope to all the people who have lost everything in the fire.”
When Professor Bacchetta first visited the old olive tree in July, soil temperatures had reached 176 degrees Fahrenheit or 80 degrees Celsius due to the fire.
“We needed to set up an intensive care unit for the tree,” he said in a telephone interview. “It really is a living being that has undergone severe trauma,” Professor Bacchetta said. “We’re going to do our best and hope it wakes up from the coma.”
The professor and his team first irrigated the soil to cool it and then protected the trunk with jute tar and the soil with straw. A nearby village provided a water tank for the tree, and a local plumber built an irrigation system that allows the soil to retain vital humidity.
A local construction company donated equipment and worked for free to build a structure to shade the trunk from the scorching sun and replicate leaves – now gone. Every 10 days, the tree is watered with organic fertilizer in hopes of encouraging the tree’s peripheral roots to grow.
“If the peripheral roots restart and manage to transfer materials to the stump,” Professor Bacchetta said, “we can hope for shoots to come out in September or October.”
The professor did not stop with the patriarch. He visited all the centuries-old olive groves in the area and advised farmers on how to save fire-damaged plants. His team and local authorities are planning a crowdfunding effort to purchase equipment for the restoration of olive groves and their fields.
Giorgio Zampa, owner of an olive grove that once belonged to his great-grandfather, lost all of his 500 oldest olive trees, planted over 350 years ago.
“Unfortunately, Mr. Bacchetta can not do much for me,” Zampa said, “but I think working with the patriarch will psychologically help the whole community.”
Ten of his 14 Sardinian donkeys and almost all of his cattle from an old, endangered breed also died in the fire as they sought shelter in a nearby forest, which began to burn shortly after. Zampa said he would focus his business on the remaining younger olive trees and start planting new ones.
“The village economy was burned to a can like olive groves,” he said. “The fire destroyed the landscape, the economy and our incomes in an unpredictable way like nothing we had seen before.”
Forest fires are not new in the Cuglieri area. They are a relatively common summer phenomenon on the arid island of Sardinia, but are generally not as apocalyptic as this season. The extraordinarily high flames, driven by strong winds from the south, reached the village home and burned to ashes everything in between, including the cemetery’s bone room.
In the last great fire, in 1994, the patriarch was spared, though the flames burned some century-old trees nearby.
“In Cuglieri, we have always felt that there is something sacred about it, and it protected it from fire,” said Piera Perria, a retired local anthropologist who first contacted Professor Bacchetta to assess the patriarch. “None of us could have imagined it could not reach this time.”
Giuseppe Mariano Delogu, a retired senior official with Sardinia’s forestry corps, said that for the past 40 years, wildfires followed the same roads on the hill and mountain near Cuglieri, but the flames never reached the olive groves.
Although civil protection and response to fires in the area have improved over the years, bureaucratic obstacles aimed at protecting scrub in the Mediterranean mean that flammable vegetation is often not cleared, creating a fire hazard, experts say. High temperatures this summer, partly due to hot winds blowing in from Africa, have intensified the risk of wildfires burning out.
“The only way to put out such fires is to prevent them,” he said. Delogu. “Technology simply fails when the fire is so strong and so big, no matter how many firefighters you have, they will always fight.”
Mr. Delogu, however, was still hopeful for the patriarch.
“These are incredible trees,” he said. “I’m optimistic.”
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