To the people of Cuglieri, a small hilltop village 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 1800 to 2000 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 countless farms and villages in the region were devastated by one of the largest wildfires in decades, time finally caught up with the Patriarch.
The old olive tree went up in flames and its gigantic trunk burned for almost two days.
In a fire that reached Cuglieri in late July, the farming community of about 2,600 people lost 90 percent of its olive trees, the main source of income for most. More than 1,000 people were evacuated from the city, which is nestled between a mountain covered with cork and oak trees and the Mediterranean Sea.
Now local residents and authorities are pinning their hopes for the survival of their ancient olive tree on Gianluigi Bacchetta, a professor at the University of Cagliari and the director of the botanical gardens, who is trying to bring the patriarch back to life.
“The Patriarch is our identity,” said Maria Franca Curcu, who is responsible for the cultural and social policy of the municipality of Cuglieri, breaking her voice. “If we can save him, we can send a message of hope to all the people who lost everything in the fire.”
When Professor Bacchetta first visited the ancient olive tree in July, the ground temperature had reached 176 degrees Fahrenheit, or 80 degrees Celsius, from the fire.
“We had to create an intensive care unit for the tree,” he said in a telephone interview. “It really is a living creature that has suffered severe trauma,” said Professor Bacchetta. “We’re going to do our best and hope it wakes up from its coma.”
The professor and his team first watered to cool the soil, then protected the trunk with jute tarpaulins 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 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 fertilizer in the hopes of stimulating the tree’s peripheral roots to grow.
“If the peripheral roots reboot and manage to transfer material to the stump,” Professor Bacchetta said, “we can hope the shoots will hatch in September or October.”
The professor didn’t stop at the patriarch. He visited all the ancient 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 to restore the olive groves and their fields.
Giorgio Zampa, the owner of an olive farm that once belonged to his great-grandfather, lost all his 500 oldest olive trees, which had been planted more than 350 years ago.
“Unfortunately, Mr. Bacchetta cannot do much for me,” said Mr. Zampa, “but I believe that the work on the Patriarch will help the whole community psychologically.”
Ten of his 14 Sardinian donkeys and nearly all of his cattle of an ancient, endangered breed also died in the bushfire as they took shelter in a nearby forest, which began to burn shortly after. Mr Zampa said he would focus his business on the remaining younger olive trees and plant new ones.
“The village’s economy has burned to ashes like the olive groves,” he said. “The fire has damaged the landscape, the economy and our incomes in an incalculable way, unlike anything we had seen before.”
Wildfires are not new to the Cuglieri area. They are a relatively common summer phenomenon on the dry island of Sardinia, but are generally not as apocalyptic as this season. The extraordinarily high flames, propelled by strong winds from the south, reached the houses of the village and burned everything in between, including the cemetery ossuary.
In the last major fire, in 1994, the Patriarch was spared, although the flames burned some ancient trees nearby.
“In Cuglieri, we’ve always felt that there was something sacred about it and that it protected it from the fire,” said Piera Perria, a retired local anthropologist who first contacted Professor Bacchetta to assess the patriarch. “None of us could have imagined that it wouldn’t work this time.”
Giuseppe Mariano Delogu, a retired senior official with the Sardinian Forestry Corps, said that for the past 40 years, forest fires followed the same paths on the hill and mountain near Cuglieri, but the flames never reached the olive groves.
While civil defense and fire response in the area have improved over the years, bureaucratic hurdles to protecting Mediterranean scrubland often prevent flammable vegetation from being cleared, posing a fire hazard, experts say. Due to the high temperatures this summer, partly due to the hot wind from Africa, the risk of outbreaks of forest fires has increased.
“The only way to extinguish such fires is to prevent them,” Mr Delogu said. “Technology just fails when the fire is this strong and this big, no matter how many firefighters you have, they will always struggle.”
But Mr. Delogu still had hope for the Patriarch.
“They are incredible trees,” he said. “I’m optimistic.”