A catastrophe – and some signs of hope

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

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

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

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)

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

Autumn squill – Scilla autumnalis

A group of 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

Shoots of wild rocket – Diplotaxis tenuifolia

Fennel - Foeniculum vulgare

Fennel – Foeniculum vulgare

Bramble - Rubus sanctus

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

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

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

Lentisc – Pistachier lentiscus

Turpentine tree - Pistacia terebinthus

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.

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15 Comments

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15 responses to “A catastrophe – and some signs of hope

  1. Merci beaucoup for this report of vital signs of life returning to your beloved Sauveplaine.

  2. Beautiful documentation. Thank you for posting this, and for all the signs of hope. A metaphor for the world.

  3. Good to hear from you, sorry for the reason. I’m from southern california and am familiar with fire and regrowth in the chapparal. Please update as it progresses.

    • It’ll be a pleasure to give updates, as well as other posts. My area seems to have more than its share of fires, one wonders if they’re all natural . . .I want to post as an act of protest. Good to hear from you too, and all my other blog friends.

  4. I’ve missed your posts, Richard! Thank you for this news and for the optimistic photos. I hope that the injured firefighters are doing as well as the plants.

  5. Wendy Ogg

    Beautiful writing, I so look forward to your posts.

  6. I will look forward to updates. Being from Australia I’ve seen this sort of fire and regeneration cycle. So long as the fire has not been so intense as to burn underground, things recover. Some are slow, some are amazingly quick. In Australia and maybe on the garrigue the habitat depends to some extent on periodic fires (certain plants need the chemicals in smoke to release their seeds or germinate for example). It is nice that it has revealed the squill, very sad that a fireman died and two are still in hospital.

    • You’re quite right – Cistus and Aleppo pine for example are two plants that rely to some extent on fires to release seeds and then prosper in the open terrain after a fire. It’ll be interesting to see how the balance of species changes.

  7. Mike

    A wonderfully written article about a very sad event, Richard.

  8. cilshafe

    I’m so sorry to learn of this disaster, it must have been gut-wrenching to experience. But regeneration is one of the miracles of the natural world and it reminds us never to despair: life will endure and your recording of the process will revive your enthusiasm for the Sauveplaine and give hope for us all. And you have asparagus!

  9. So glad to read that you were our of danger. Mother Nature’s recuperative powers are truly remarkable, as your post proves.

    • In the great extinction events of our evolutionary history, of which the demise of the dinosaurs and much other animal life was only one example, the majority of plants survived with hardly a blink. Why? Seeds. Underground roots. Resistance to radiation. Plants grow rampant around Chernobyl. Whatever we do to the Earth, we may suffer, but plants will in the end be OK.

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