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Fire Threatens Old Vines in Southern Chile

by Patricio Tapia  patriciotapia • posted on January 27, 2017

Over the past week, CONAF, the Corporation Nacional Forestal, reports fires have consumed almost 714,134 acres of forests and crops in central and southern Chile. The government has already declared the fires to be the worst forest disaster in the country’s history.

The situation is far from being under control. One hundred fires are still burning, driven by summer temperatures that surpassed historical records and winds that have been dispersing the flames. The symbol of the catastrophe has been, since Wednesday, the town of Santa Olga, in the Maule Valley, which literally disappeared under the flames, leaving a thousand homes destroyed.

Wines of Chile, a group comprising the main wineries in the country, has called an emergency meeting to assess the situation and develop a plan to respond to areas hit by the fires. According to the group’s president, Mario Pablo Silva, members have only reported about seven hectares burned by the flames, but many small producers—especially from the dry farmed southern valleys of Maule, Itata and Bío Bío—have been struggling to save their vineyards. And some areas in the central valley region of Colchagua have been hard hit as well. In an official statement this morning, Wines of Chile reported that, “According to preliminary information, no vineyard damage has been identified in the Casablanca Valley, Curicó and Bíobío… At present loss is concentrated in the Maule Valley (27 hectares reported), Maipo Valley (10 hectares reported), and Colchagua Valley (7 hectares reported).”

Rolando Villalobos, of the Villalobos Winery in Colchagua, says that a fire burned half a hectare of his family’s vines, a machinery warehouse and the library of older vintages of its red wines. “Fortunately, or rather miraculously, the old vineyard from which we get our carignan was saved,” he reports. “But now we have been told that another wave of fires is coming from the coast, so we are alert.”

An exhausted Renán Cancino, of El Viejo Almacén de Sauzal in Maule’s arid western hills, says the winds have made the fires difficult to control. “Our vineyards and those of the farmers who sell us grapes have not been heavily affected,” he says, adding that the green leaves of the vines don’t burn as fast as, for example, a forest where the soil is covered by dry leaves and dry grass. “It’s in the forests and with other crops that you can see the destruction of the flames most dramatically.”

Bodega González Bastías did not have the same luck. They lost a third of their vineyard, almost four acres of 150-year-old país vines. “In an instant, the fire began to come from all sides,” says Daniela Lorenzo. “We felt trapped. But we’re still here, struggling. A house can be rebuilt, but vineyards like these cannot be recovered.”

Bodega González Bastías team fighting fire in Maule Bodega González Bastías team fighting fire in Maule

In Itata, south of Maule, reports of the fires only began to come in on Wednesday. Edgardo Candia, president of the Association of Winemakers and Wine Professionals of the Itata Valley, says, “There is not much vineyard burned in Itata, although the fire is still not under control. The temperature is very high and there is a lot of wind, so anything can happen. We are very alert. The concern is not the crops, but the people.”

Meanwhile, in the midst of the crisis, it is difficult to quantify the damage, especially for small vignerons, as the fires continue to sweep southern Chile.

This is a W&S web exclusive feature.