For the people of Cuglieri, a small village perched on the Italian island of Sardinia, the tree was simply “the patriarch”.
Over the course of its long life – estimates of its age range from 1,800 to 2,000 years – the olive tree grew into a giant, with a trunk 11 feet or 3.4 meters wide and forming an integral part of an ancient landscape of western Sardinia. But after a vast area of vegetation and many farms and villages in the region were devastated by one of the biggest wildfires in decades, time has 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 farming community of around 2,600 people lost 90 percent of their olive trees, the main source of income for most. More than 1,000 people were evacuated from the city, nestled between a mountain covered with cork and oak trees and the Mediterranean Sea.
Now, residents and authorities are placing their hopes for the survival of their old olive tree on Gianluigi Bacchetta, professor at the University of Cagliari and 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 cultural and social policies of the Municipality of Cuglieri, her voice breaking. “If we can save him, we can give a message of hope to all of the people who lost everything in the fire.”
When Professor Bacchetta first visited the old olive tree in July, ground temperatures had reached 176 degrees Fahrenheit, or 80 degrees Celsius, because of the fire.
“We had to create an intensive care unit for the tree,” he said in a telephone interview. “It is truly a living being who has suffered severe trauma,” said Professor Bacchetta. “We will do our best and hope he wakes up from his coma.”
The professor and his team first watered the soil to cool it, then protected the trunk with jute sheeting and the soil with straw. A nearby village donated a water reservoir for the tree, and a local plumber built an irrigation system that helps the soil retain crucial moisture.
A local construction company donated equipment and worked for free to build a structure to protect the trunk from the scorching sun, mimicking the role of leaves – now gone. Every 10 days, the tree is irrigated with organic fertilizers in the hope of promoting the growth of the tree’s peripheral roots.
Extreme weather conditions
“If the peripheral roots start up again and manage to transfer material to the stump,” Professor Bacchetta said, “we can expect the 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, advising farmers on how to save fire damaged plants. His team and local authorities are planning a crowdfunding effort to purchase equipment to restore the olive groves and their fields.
Giorgio Zampa, owner of an olive grove that once belonged to his great-grandfather, has lost all of his 500 oldest olive trees, planted over 350 years ago.
“Mr. Bacchetta unfortunately cannot do much for me,” Mr. Zampa said, “but I think the work on the patriarch will help the whole community psychologically.
Ten of his 14 Sardinian donkeys and almost all of his cattle from an ancient endangered breed also died in the wildfire as they sought refuge in a nearby forest, which began to burn soon after. Mr Zampa said he would focus his business on the remaining younger olive trees and start planting new ones.
“The village’s economy has been reduced to ashes like the olive groves,” he said. “The fire damaged the landscape, the economy and our income in ways that we have never seen before. “
Forest fires are not new to the Cuglieri region. They are a relatively common summer phenomenon on the arid island of Sardinia, but are generally not as apocalyptic as this season. The extraordinarily tall flames, propelled by strong southerly winds, reached homes in the village and burned everything in between, including the cemetery ossuary.
In the last great fire, in 1994, the Patriarch was spared, although the flames burned old trees nearby.
“In Cuglieri, we always felt that there was something sacred about it and that it protected him from the fire,” said Piera Perria, a retired local anthropologist who first contacted Professor Bacchetta for assess the patriarch. “None of us could imagine that he couldn’t do it this time.”
Giuseppe Mariano Delogu, a retired senior official in the Sardinian Forestry Corps, said that for the past 40 years, forest fires have followed the same routes up the hill and mountain near Cuglieri, but the flames never reached the olive groves.
Although civil protection and fire response in the region have improved over the years, bureaucratic hurdles to protect the Mediterranean scrubland mean that flammable vegetation is often not cleaned up, creating fire hazards, according to the experts. High temperatures this summer, in part due to warm winds blowing from Africa, have heightened the risk of forest fires.
“The only way to put out such fires is to prevent them,” said Mr. Delogu. “Technology simply fails when the fire is so powerful and so vast, no matter how many firefighters you have, they will always struggle. “
However, Mr. Delogu still had hope for the Patriarch.
“They are incredible trees,” he said. “I am optimistic.”