It’s been a while since my last post, but a major event has made me turn again to my keyboard.
On Wednesday, 10th August a forest fire swept over a vast area to the north-west of my village, burning all living things in its path to charcoal and ashes. About 150 hectares (around 370 acres) of oak scrub and garrigue were reduced, as the newspaper Midi Libre reported, to a lunar landscape. Why is that serious, when at the same time a larger fire was threatening the outskirts of Marseille, and there were many fires raging in Portugal? Because in my neck of the (damaged) woods, four firefighters were seriously injured, and because the area blasted to a botanical ground zero included my beloved Sauveplaine. The human cost is of course by far the most grave, but forgive me if on this blog I concentrate on the effects on an area of outstanding wild beauty.
I first wrote about this area in May 2013 here, and this is one of the photos I took then.
The Sauveplaine in May 2013
Like a meadow, rich in pyramidal and other orchids, lilies, grape hyacinths, wild thyme and many other plants – I had started a list for a small patch which had reached 105 species. This is the same area now.
The ‘meadow’ after the fire
I still feel the transformation of this landscape as a physical blow. It was eerie beyond belief to visit after the fire – desolated, empty, motionless and dark, as if haunted by something more supernatural than a fire. No insects. A very few disorientated birds far overhead. Silence.
Near where the group of figures stood in my post of May 25, 2013
A few more views of the aftermath.
Where there had been a blue sea of Viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare)
If you want to see more images of how it was, try my previous posts to this one, in 2015.
Well, I said to myself, there are two things to do: one is to see what can be done in the village to remember the Sauveplaine and to support the families of the fire fighters, and the other is to document how nature responds to a catastrophe like that.
I have to report the tragic news that one firefighter subsequently died of his injurues, while two remain in hospital in a serious but stable condition. One has been released from hospital. A Support Commitee has been established to register expressions of solidarity, and to collect funds for these four and their families : see here for their Facebook page. I’ll report later on other local initiatives.
Fires are most often nowadays due to human acts such as discarded cigarettes, but they have always occurred from time to time in the garrigue, as a result of lightning strikes, for example. Plants have evolved to survive fires as species, even if individuals are lost, and those able to colonise burnt ground are the plants we see here every day.
For example, the Kermes oak (Quercus coccifera) which forms a small bush up to 2 metres high and has small, holly-like leaves, has extensive underground stems and can regenerate when all above ground has been burnt or grazed by animals. Similar adaptations help all plants with underground bulbs, corms or rhizomes, such as asparagus – the best place to hunt for the shoots in Spring is in areas which have had a fire. These species are common in the garrigue which experiences a very hot and dry summer because the same adaptations help the plants survive drought.
So I was optimistic that there would be regrowth, and scoffed at friends who suggested the area would have to be ‘replanted’. Even so, I reckoned, sadly, that in my lifetime I wouldn’t see the Sauveplaine regain the glory I had known up until the 9th of August.
I was however surprised when I went up to the Sauveplaine again on 27th September to see how much regrowth had already started, aided by a couple of days of rain. The most positive image I carry away is that of drifts of Autumn squill (Scilla autumnalis) – a plant I had not noticed there before, because it had been hidden by other vegetation I suppose. A survivor thanks to its underground bulb.
Autumn squill – Scilla autumnalis
A group of Scilla autumnalis
And other plants leading the resurgence, among around twenty species I noticed:
Shoots of wild rocket – Diplotaxis tenuifolia
Fennel – Foeniculum vulgare
Bramble – Rubus sanctus
Every gardener who’s tried to get rid of brambles knows how deep and tenacious are the roots!
Pitch trefoil – Psoralea bitumenosa
This shows how deep the roots of this trefoil must go, if it has avoided being destroyed by heat.
Wild asparagus – Asparagus officinalis
Bizarre – asparagus should do this in Spring! There were so many shoots, I gathered enough to make an omelette.
Lentisc – Pistachier lentiscus
Turpentine tree – Pistacia terebinthus
You can be sure that I’ll be going back regularly, and posting more reports on the regeneration of this site.
For the glory that was the Sauveplaine, but especially in memory of the brave firefighter who died, here’s Charles Lloyd’s group playing his tune ‘Requiem’, from the Athens Concert.