As families evacuated their homes, fleeing the fires engulfing the Chilean town of Cauquenes this past weekend, Diego Morales stayed behind, watching the smoke envelop his 150-year-old vineyards.
Firefighters deployed in the town were so overwhelmed that vineyard owners, neighbors and family members were forced to douse the fires themselves. Morales and his family thrust buckets of water in all directions, suffering minor burns, but they couldn’t stop the powerful blaze.
Half of Morales’s vineyard — more than 60 acres of vines surrounded by forests — was consumed in the fire, Morales’s business partner, Carlos Gálvez, said in an interview with The Washington Post. Unless the vines recover next season, Gálvez said, the business, Bisogno Wines, will lose half its wine production.
“This is a low-income region, and many live off the vineyards,” he said. “There are some who have lost everything.”
Morales’s vineyard is one of more than 100 in the wine-producing region of Maule in Chile that have been damaged by the historic forest fires scorching this long sliver of a South American nation, reported Decanter magazine. The blazes began over a week ago and spread quickly with the summer’s drought and high temperatures, decimating more than 300,000 acres of forest across the country.
The government declared a state of emergency on Friday, and President Michelle Bachelet has asked Brazil, Canada, Mexico, Peru, Spain and France for assistance in providing planes and helicopters to tackle the fires. The U.S. is also sending a group of experts and funds to replace equipment at Chile’s national forestry agency.
“Chile is living the greatest forest disaster in our history,” Bachelet said, adding later that the country has “practically exhausted its capacity to fight the blazes,” the BBC reported.
The head of Chile’s forestry service has said the fires were caused by humans, but that it could not be determined whether they were set intentionally.
Hundreds of people have been evacuated from their homes, and at least three people have died trying to tackle the fire. Families in the town of Pumanque in the south-central region of O’Higgins have lost most of their possessions and livelihood, with livestock suffering burns and struggling to survive off the blackened soil, the Associated Press reported. Chile’s Public Works Ministry said Monday that heavy machinery will be sent to the area to bury the hundreds of animals that died in the wave of fires.
Images show the capital of Santiago cloaked in a thick haze, with helicopters and planes desperately attempting to quell the fires. There were more than 100 uncontrolled fires in central and southern Chile until a few days ago, and the number has now decreased to about 40, according to the most recent report from Chile’s forestry agency. Though some areas, such as the town of Cauquenes, have managed to control the blazes, many fires continue to burn and flare up, and residents and municipal leaders have grown frustrated with the government’s efforts.
“Here we live a hell, we were not heard,” said Roberto Rivera, mayor of Vichuquén, where advancing fires have forced residents to evacuate, according to local press. “We were given answers that we should remain calm.”
And in Maule, where most residents make their livelihood off small vineyards passed down through generations, the fires have been devastating. Cancha Alegre winemaker Sergio Amigo Quevedo lost nearly 15 acres of 120-year-old vines this past weekend, Decanter reported.
‘It is hard to believe that those vines, which you have taken care of with such love and sacrifice, are lost, along with part of the viticultural patrimony of Chile, because of a voracious fire caused by careless men,” Amigo said, calling it “a tremendous pain.”
Daniela Lorenzo Bürger’s vineyard in Maule was also caught in the fire’s path of destruction over the weekend. In videos she posted to Facebook, she can be heard crying as she watched her land become consumed in a cloud of smoke. During the course of the fires, planes and helicopters sent to the region flew directly to the surrounding forests, passing over burning homes and vineyards, she claimed. Since many cables and supply hoses were burned, water and electricity had yet to be restored days later.
“Complete houses, complete vineyards with centuries-old vines, animals and native forests have been destroyed,” she wrote. “We fought the fire without stopping, day and night, only with the help of neighbors who came to support.”
“It is impossible to describe the fear of seeing the fire advance towards you,” Lorenzo added. “We are left in the ashes. But I do not feel like a victim, because as the vine will sprout, so will we, with more strength and new life for our projects!”
Lorenzo urged other local residents to join her in calling for stronger forestry legislation to help prevent future fires. Morales, the winemaker from Cauquenes, also criticized the government, saying its response to the fires did not come quickly enough.
“What burned here was a cultural patrimony of more than 200 years,” he told Decanter. “I hope we can value our history and culture before this type of event happens again.’