Flash Floods Kill at Least 21 in Tennessee and 5 in North Carolina
Extreme Weather and Climate Updates
Aug. 23, 2021Updated Aug. 23, 2021, 4:36 p.m. ETAug. 23, 2021, 4:36 p.m. ET
Several others in Tennessee remained missing on Monday. Follow here for the latest updates on extreme weather in the U.S. and around the world.
What role does climate change play in disasters like the Tennessee flooding?See photos of the aftermath of the devastating floods.Henri continues to bring heavy rain to parts of the Northeast.The Caldor fire near Sacramento has burned more than 100,000 acres.Wildfires are ravaging forests set aside to soak up greenhouse gases.
Flash floods cut a path of destruction through Humphreys County over the weekend scattering cars, ripping homes from their foundations, and killing more than 20 peopleCreditCredit…Mark Humphrey/Associated Press
At least 21 people have been killed in Tennessee and about 10 others remained missing on Monday after a catastrophic flash flood swept through a rural area of rivers, creeks and rolling woods about 90 minutes’ drive west of Nashville, the authorities said.
Two of the dead appeared to be twin toddlers who were swept away from their father, Sheriff Chris Davis of Humphreys County told WSMV-TV of Nashville. And another victim was the sheriff’s best friend.
“He drowned in this,” Sheriff Davis told the station. “If I stay working and stay focused, I work through it.”
Among those still missing on Monday was Lucy Connor, 7, who lives with her family behind a dollar store in Waverly, according to the station. The Waverly Department of Public Safety posted a partial list of those missing on Monday.
The flash flood disappeared this weekend as quickly as it arrived, leaving behind a trail of destruction in and around Humphreys County. Homes were washed off their foundations and tossed across the street. Cars and trucks were strewn about, and bridges and roads crumbled. Debris filled chain-link fences.
“Our people need help,” Sheriff Davis said at an afternoon news conference. “We are going to be overwhelmed for the next 30 days at least — overwhelmed.” He said the devastation extended up to 10 miles.
More than 3,000 homes in the region remained without power on Monday morning, according to state emergency officials, and schools were shut down for the week after some buildings suffered water damage.
The number of victims and potential victims fluctuated on Monday as new names were added to the list of people missing and others were reported safe by family members, officials said. At one point on Sunday, officials had said at least 22 people were dead.
Chief Grant Gillespie of the Waverly Department of Public Safety told reporters that he believed fewer than 10 people were missing by Monday afternoon. Many on a list of about 40 people from earlier in the day had been found safe.
At a news conference on Sunday, Gov. Bill Lee of Tennessee described the deadly flooding as “a devastating picture of loss and heartache in one of our Tennessee communities.”
In neighboring North Carolina, at least five people were killed after flash floods wiped out homes in the western part of the state in the wake of Tropical Depression Fred last week, the authorities said on Sunday.
The dead, ages 68 to 86, were from Cruso, N.C., in Haywood County, where homes were swept off their foundations. Rescuers were searching on Sunday for another person who remained missing.
Josh Whitlock and Stacy Mathieson look through what is left of their home after it burned following flooding in Waverly.Credit…Andrew Nelles/The Tennessean, via Associated Press
At a news conference on Sunday, President Biden said he had encouraged federal officials to offer assistance to Tennessee. “I want to begin by expressing my deepest condolences for the sudden and tragic loss of life due to this flash flood,” he said.
Heavy rain and storms overwhelmed creeks in the mountains west of Nashville starting on Saturday morning. Nine to 17 inches of rain fell across parts of Central Tennessee within a six-hour period, and another round of severe weather struck the same area on Saturday night.
In Waverly, Tenn., Rickey Larkin said he saw the creek behind his home spill over its banks. “We prayed and we prayed it would go down,” he said. “We came about a foot from drowning. I thought we were gone.”
One of the hardest-hit areas was the town of McEwen, where 17 inches of rainfall was recorded on Saturday. The National Weather Service said the figure most likely set a statewide record for the most rainfall in a 24-hour span. The previous record of 13.6 inches was set in 1982.
“Right now I close my eyes, and I can’t get over the devastation,” Sheriff Davis told reporters.
Flood damage in Waverly, Tenn., on Sunday.Credit…Andrew Nelles/The Tennessean, via Associated Press
In the past 48 hours, parts of Tennessee have been swept by record-breaking rainfall and unexpected flash flooding that has killed at least 21 people and left dozens missing.
“This is exactly the type of event we expect to see with increasing frequency in a warming climate,” said Gary Lackmann, a professor of atmospheric science at North Carolina State University.
The Tennessee disaster comes just weeks after extraordinary floods struck Germany, sending water crashing through the streets and causing widespread devastation. In the aftermath, the president of the European Commission called those floods a clear indication of climate change. “It shows the urgency to act,” she said.
However, flooding is complicated. It can be tricky to determine whether climate change is the driving force behind any individual flood or making it more catastrophic. Here’s why.
A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, which can mean heavier rainfall. Tennessee saw immense amounts of rain over the weekend, including nine inches in three hours.
But flooding is a result both of heavy rainfall and of the way water is managed — through dams, levees or retention ponds — as well as a landscape’s hydrology, which refers to the way that water flows, collects and runs off the land. Transforming forests or open land into more impermeable areas, whether parking lots or housing developments, can reduce the amount of land available to absorb runoff.
One reason the Tennessee flood was so deadly is that it was the type of small-scale storm that can challenge forecasting tools.
Smaller-scale storms can be trickier to forecast than large-scale weather systems like hurricanes, which rely in part on radar and satellite data. Any heavy rainfall, which produces heat, can cause the forecasting models to perform poorly.
“It’s sort of a worst-case scenario because it’s a small weather system that happens and develops quickly,” Dr. Lackmann said. “For these kinds of events, it’s going to be really difficult to get much lead time or forecast warning.”
And attribution studies — a type of research that aims to establish links between climate change and specific extreme weather events — can take some time.
“It’s not easy to attribute a single weather event to climate change,” Dr. Lackmann said. But, he added, “when you start seeing these events happening more frequently, it becomes more unambiguous.”
Pool photo by Alan Poizner
Mark Humphrey/Associated Press
Andrew Nelles/The Tennessean, via Associated Press
Andrew Nelles/The Tennessean, via Associated Press
Mark Humphrey/Associated Press
An independent estimate last year showed nearly twice as many properties may be susceptible to flood damage, compared to federal data at the time.
Across much of the United States, the flood risk may be far greater than government estimates previously have shown, exposing millions of people to a hidden threat — and one that will only grow as climate change worsens.
According to calculations last year that took into account sea-level rise, rainfall and flooding along smaller creeks not included in the federal government’s flood maps, an estimated 14.6 million properties were at risk from what experts call a 100-year flood, far more than the 8.7 million properties shown on federal maps at that time. A 100-year flood is one with a 1 percent chance of striking in any given year.
The government’s flood maps guide where and how to build, whether homeowners should buy flood insurance, and how much risk mortgage lenders take on. The numbers, which The New York Times mapped and published last year, suggested that homeowners, builders, banks, insurers and government officials nationwide had been making decisions with information that understated true physical and financial risks.
Numerous cities nationwide — as diverse as Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Buffalo, N.Y., and Chattanooga, Tenn. — showed the startling gap in the risks. And minority communities often face a bigger share of hidden risk.
“Millions of home and property owners have had no way of knowing the significant risk they face,” said Matthew Eby, founder and executive director of the First Street Foundation, a group of academics and experts who compiled the data, creating a website where people can check their own address.
Explore the 2020 interactive article, which included county-by-county risk comparisons nationwide:
Cars submerged in flash flooding in Washington, D.C., in September.Credit…D.C. Fire and EMS, via Reuters
After hours of sweltering heat, the sky darkens to a charcoal gray. Suddenly it feels as if thunderstorms and heavy rain are imminent. An alert appears on your phone or in the news ticker at the bottom of your television screen: A flash flood watch or warning has been posted for your area.
But what exactly does that mean? And what should you do to avoid being caught in fast-rising waters, which the National Weather Service says are responsible for an average of 88 deaths each year in the United States?
Flash flooding gets its name because of the sudden deluge after a heavy rainfall, which the Weather Service says is the most common cause. The flooding begins within six hours and often within three hours of an intense rainfall, though sometimes it can happen within minutes, giving people little time to take precautions.
Flooding occurs in areas where the ground is unable to absorb all of the water, according to forecasters, who explained that flash flooding can also be caused by mudslides or breaks in dams or levees.
Urban areas are particularly vulnerable to flash flooding because they have a lot of paved surfaces. For evidence of this, one need look no further than social media, where commuters share videos of flooded subway stations and roads.
A flash flood warning means that flash flooding is imminent or already happening, under the designations used by the Weather Service. A flash flood watch indicates that conditions are favorable for flash flooding, and that it is a possibility.
Flash flooding is distinct from flooding, such as the extraordinary floods that have been blamed for the deaths of more than 180 people in Germany and Belgium.
The Weather Service defines a flood as the inundation of a normally dry area with rising water from a river or stream. Flooding can last days or weeks, which is much longer than flash flooding.
But disaster preparedness experts emphasized that flash flooding can still be dangerous, in part because appearances can be deceiving.
“Six inches of fast, flowing water can knock you over, and two feet is enough to float an entire vehicle,” said Katie Wilkes, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross. “I think one of the most important things to know is that flash floods are called flash floods for a reason.”
The Red Cross recommends that people closely monitor weather forecasts for flash flooding advisories, keep an emergency kit at hand and develop an evacuation plan. Move immediately to higher ground and never try to cross floodwaters, the organization said.
The driver of a vehicle that is on a flooded road should get out and move to higher ground if it is safe, Ms. Wilkes said.
To raise awareness about the dangers of floodwaters, the Weather Service created a public safety campaign called Turn Around, Don’t Drown. It cautions that roadbeds may be washed away beneath floodwaters, making it dangerous to try to drive through them.
More people die each year in the United States as a result of flash flooding than they do from tornadoes, hurricanes or lightning, according to the Weather Service.
Assessing the dangers of floodwaters can be even more difficult at night, according to state and federal public safety agencies, which warn people to avoid camping or parking next to creeks or in other flood-prone areas.
People who are ordered to evacuate their homes should not try to return until the authorities tell them that it is safe to do so, disaster preparedness experts said.
At Grand Canyon National Park, a woman from Michigan was killed in flash flooding along the Colorado River near the Tatahatso Camp, the National Park Service said. She was reported missing on July 14, and her body was found the next day, the agency said.
A utility pole was left bent over by Tropical Storm Henri in South Kingstown, R.I., on Sunday.Credit…Brian Snyder/Reuters
A day after the fierce winds of Tropical Storm Henri battered the Northeast, knocking out power to thousands and causing flooding from New York City to Rhode Island and beyond, the storm, now a slow-moving tropical depression, was expected to bring another round of heavy rains and flooding to portions of southern New England and the northern Mid-Atlantic States on Monday.
As of 5 a.m. on Monday, the system was nearly stationary and located about 60 miles north-northwest of New York City. It was moving east at one mile per hour with maximum sustained winds of 30 m.p.h., according to the National Weather Service.
“It’s stalled right now, but should begin moving slowly to the east later this morning and into the afternoon,” Dennis Feltgen, a meteorologist and spokesman for the National Hurricane Center, said on Monday morning.
Montauk, N.Y., Sunday
Dave Sanders for The New York Times
Helmetta, N.J., Sunday
Thomas P. Costello & Mike Davis/via Reuters
Jamestown, R.I., Sunday
Cj Gunther/EPA, via Shutterstock
Karsten Moran for The New York Times
Eatons Neck, N.Y., Sunday
Heather Walsh for The New York Times
He said the greatest impact from the system would be more heavy rain. About five to eight inches of rain had already fallen across northern New Jersey and in the New York metro area. Central Park set a record on Saturday for the most rain in a single hour when 1.94 inches fell between 10 and 11 p.m.
“Rain is still falling and will continue today,” he added. The latest rainfall totals included up to 6.32 inches of rain in Brooklyn, about 6.5 inches in Lyndhurst, N.J., and as much as 2.58 inches in Durham, Conn.
Henri is expected to drop an additional one to three inches of rain on Monday, with higher amounts possible in some areas, over portions of Long Island, New England, southeast New York, New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania.
The rain will result in flash, urban and small stream flooding, Mr. Feltgen said. Flood warnings were in effect for northern New Jersey and southeastern New York State and elsewhere.
“Motorists should not attempt to drive around barricades or drive through flooded areas,” Mr. Feltgen said, noting that most flood deaths take place in vehicles. “Turn around, don’t drown,” he added.
Before it weakened, Henri was a tropical storm that slammed the Northeast on Sunday. The system wiped out power in most of coastal Rhode Island, forced evacuations in Connecticut, stranded dozens of motorists in New Jersey and shattered rainfall records in New York City.
The system, which made landfall in Rhode Island, spared the region the brunt of what was predicted. During its peak on Sunday afternoon, the storm left more than 140,000 households without power from New Jersey to Maine.
Burning southwest of Lake Tahoe, the Caldor fire grew by more than 30,000 acres over the weekend. Hundreds of homes have been destroyed by the fire, officials said.CreditCredit…Fred Greaves/Reuters
Crews battling the Caldor fire southwest of Lake Tahoe in California endured another stressful weekend as the fire grew by more than 30,000 acres in just two days.
The fire, which started on Aug. 14 and grew quickly, has burned 104,000 acres and was five percent contained as of Sunday evening, according to a New York Times wildfire tracker.
Nearly 350 homes have been destroyed, and more than 17,000 structures are threatened by the fire, fire officials said. At least 207 fire engines and 20 helicopters have been assisting in fighting the blaze, requiring more than 1,600 personnel so far.
Thousands of people in El Dorado County had been urged to leave their homes or to prepare to do so, according to the governor’s office. Officials said that evacuation orders could remain in place for up to two weeks. On Saturday, high winds caused the fire to jump Highway 50, one of the main routes between Sacramento and the Lake Tahoe area. A portion of that highway remains closed.
Favorable weather may assist firefighters at the start of the week — cooler temperatures are predicted across fire-ravaged areas for Monday and Tuesday, but the same areas are forecast to reach above normal by Thursday and into Friday, the National Weather Service said. Portions of Northern California will continue to see smoke and haze from the wildfires.
While wildfires occur throughout the West every year, scientists see the influence of climate change in the extreme heat waves that have contributed to the intensity of fires this summer. Prolonged periods of abnormally high temperatures are a signal of a shifting climate, they say.
Across California, over 13,000 firefighters were battling 13 active large wildfires that have burned more than 1.54 million acres, according to Cal Fire, the state’s firefighting agency.
The Dixie fire, the second-largest on record in California, remains a threat to communities. It has burned more than 720,000 acres since it started more than a month ago. It was only 38 percent contained as of Sunday night.
The fire has destroyed more than 1,200 structures, including much of the historic town of Greenville. Susanville, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, has become a refuge for evacuees. On Sunday, some evacuation orders and warnings were reduced for some areas, particularly in Lassen County.
The fire potential in most of California’s mountains and foothills is forecast to be higher than normal through September, and through October in areas prone to offshore winds, the National Interagency Fire Center said this month.
Evacuees from the Caldor fire in Placerville, Calif., on Thursday.Credit…Ethan Swope/Associated Press
CAMERON PARK, Calif. — The Caldor fire was just a few miles from Kathy Elliot and John Niebuhr’s house in Pleasant Valley on Tuesday when the authorities came up their driveway and told them it was time to get out.
“We could see the flames,” Mr. Niebuhr, 66, said on Friday as he sat outside an evacuation shelter in Cameron Park, 32 miles east of Sacramento, along with Ms. Elliot and their black German shepherd, Schatzi.
Ms. Elliot, 73, said they only had time to gather essentials and a few documents, not photographs or keepsakes, before they left. “When you’ve got an hour or two,” she added, “it goes by so fast.”
The couple, who have been sleeping in their car outside the shelter, are among more than 20,000 people subject to evacuation orders and warnings in El Dorado County, which is being thrashed by a fire that had consumed nearly 100,000 acres of mainly forested terrain by Sunday evening and was zero percent contained.
Many evacuees are staying with friends or relatives and anxiously awaiting news. Others are camped out on neighbors’ properties, in parking lots, or outside emergency shelters, some of which are filling rapidly.
“They’re all over,” said Tami Martin, a county liaison with the Red Cross at the Cameron Park shelter, a community center that was filled to capacity. Ms. Martin said there were about 70 evacuees there in all.
Inside, cots stood in lines in the center of the room, and donated clothing and other supplies were stacked to one side. The parking lot was packed with vehicles. Part of the neighboring street has been transformed into a makeshift campsite. Local residents visit the site to offer evacuees the use of a washing machine for laundry, or a cup of coffee.
“Most people are really upbeat, and just hanging in there,” said the Rev. Debra Sabino, an Episcopal priest from Placerville, about 15 miles east of Cameron Park, who has been taking grocery orders from evacuees camped outside the shelter.
Ms. Sabino and others said that political divisions ran deep in the county — a largely conservative former Gold Rush region — but that the fire had appeared to bridge them.
“I was kind of feeling like there are no good people left on the world, and this has changed my mind,” said Olivia Byron-Cooper, who evacuated from Pleasant Valley on Tuesday with seven horses and two dogs, and was staying at a nearby fairground in a trailer.
Ms. Byron-Cooper, who is also the director of public health for El Dorado County, said the greatest challenge was ensuring the safety of those sheltering in close quarters from becoming sick with Covid-19.
Some people arriving at evacuation centers had tested positive for the coronavirus, she added. “The last thing you want is to have an outbreak in an evacuation center.”
Others at the fairground — which has been set up to accommodate those with large animals — said that after experiencing previous fires in California, they had decided to leave even before the authorities ordered them to.
“Maybe four to five hours, that’s all you have,” said Bob Stucky, who together with his wife, Mary Beth Stucky, evacuated their three St. Bernards, two horses, two donkeys and a rabbit named Miracle that survived the region’s 2014 King Fire.
The couple said that after that fire, they decided to buy a trailer and gates for their animals to ensure they were always ready to evacuate. “We decided we needed to be safe,” Ms. Stucky said.
Some residents not yet affected by the fire said that while they were assisting evacuees, they were conscious that, if the fire continued to spread, a similar fate could soon await them.
“We’re prepared,” said Michelle Soto of Cameron Park.
Officials have warned that it could be days or weeks before evacuees are allowed to return home, and some residents say they have even begun to question living in a state that an ever-longer fire season is making increasingly uninhabitable.
“The thought has crossed my mind: ‘Maybe I should just go buy a condo,'” said Ms. Byron-Cooper, the public health director. But, she added, “it’s a fleeting thought.”
A firefighter in an area burned by the Bootleg fire near Paisley, Ore., last month.Credit…Kristina Barker for The New York Times
The wildfires in the American West are burning vast expanses of specially protected forests — those that are part of carbon-offset projects meant to counterbalance the carbon dioxide pollution being pumped into the atmosphere by human activity.
Carbon-offset programs, which are designed to fight climate change, typically pay landowners to manage their land in ways that store carbon. Usually, that means paying landowners to not chop down trees.
Wildfires, however, don’t respect those agreements.
An estimated 153,000 acres of forests that are part of California’s carbon-offset project have burned so far this summer, according to CarbonPlan, a nonprofit climate-research organization. Three projects have been affected. In Oregon, a quarter of the Klamath East project, or close to 100,000 acres, has burned in the Bootleg Fire since early July.
“The worst fire season in Western U.S. history is going on,” said Danny Cullenward, the policy director of CarbonPlan. “That story is just crashing headfirst into some of the big bets that policymakers and private companies have made about the role of forest carbon as a climate solution. What we are seeing is, a bunch of projects are on fire.”
Forests store carbon by pulling carbon dioxide out of the air and locking it away in tree trunks and other growth. When a tree burns, though, that carbon is released back into the atmosphere.
California’s carbon offset program works by paying landowners if they commit to managing their land for 100 years in ways that will store more carbon than they would have otherwise.
Companies that want to offset their own emissions of greenhouse gases can then buy credits that represent the additional carbon being stored in forests like these.
An official with the California Air Resources Board, which oversees the state’s carbon-offset program, declined to comment on CarbonPlan’s findings.
The program has stirred up controversy, including criticism that credits have been overvalued and that some landowners have taken advantage of the system by accepting payments in return for protecting forests that wouldn’t have been cut down. But experts say the wildfires have highlighted one of the main weaknesses in the program: the small size of the so-called buffer pool.
Buffer pool is a bureaucratic term for a simple idea: It’s an insurance policy against disasters like fires. In effect, carbon-offset projects also protect a small percentage of extra land so that if disaster strikes one project, that extra pool of land — with contributions from many different projects — can make up for losses.
But too many fires mean that the insurance policy might not be enough.
“If the current rate of fire loss continues, the buffer pool will not be sufficient — and that loss will get greater with climate change,” said Barbara Haya, director of the Berkeley Carbon Trading Program at the University of California, Berkeley.
This month, Microsoft said offsets that the company had purchased were burning. BP also purchased offsets in a large project that is now burning, according to a report by the Washington Department of Natural Resources. (In an email, a BP official said the company doesn’t rely on carbon offsets to meet its emissions reduction targets.)
CarbonPlan’s estimates are based on maps of the projects enrolled in California’s cap-and-trade program overlaid with the active fire perimeters tracked by the federal government. Three additional carbon-offset projects are near large wildfires, according to CarbonPlan.
Gianluigi Bacchetta, a professor at the University of Cagliari, trying to save “the Patriarch,” an ancient olive tree in the Sardinian village of Cuglieri.Credit…Emanuele Perrone/Getty Images
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 1,800 to 2,000 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 numerous farms and villages in the region were devastated by one of the biggest wildfires in decades, time finally caught up with the Patriarch.
The ancient olive tree was engulfed in flames, and its giant trunk burned for almost two days.
In a fire that reached Cuglieri in late July, the agricultural community of about 2,600 residents lost 90 percent of its olive trees, the main source of income for most. More than 1,000 people were evacuated from the town, which is tucked between a mountain covered in cork and oak trees and the Mediterranean Sea.
A wildfire swept across western Sardinia in late July, devastating many agricultural communities.Credit…Mauro Ujetto/NurPhoto, via Getty Images
Now local residents and the 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 its 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 cultural and social policies for the municipality of Cuglieri, her voice breaking. “If we can save him, we can give a message of hope to all the people who have lost everything in the fire.”
When Professor Bacchetta first visited the ancient olive tree in July, soil temperatures had reached 176 degrees Fahrenheit, or 80 degrees Celsius, because of the fire.
“We needed to create an intensive care unit for the tree,” he said in a telephone interview. “It really is a living being that underwent serious trauma,” Professor Bacchetta said. “We are going to do our best and hope that it wakes up from its coma.”
The professor and his team first watered the soil to cool it down and then protected the trunk with jute tarps and the soil with straw. A nearby village gave a water tank for the tree, and a local plumber built an irrigation system that allows the soil to retain crucial humidity.
Professor Bacchetta working to save the ancient olive tree in late July. When he first visited the tree, soil temperatures had reached 176 degrees Fahrenheit, or 80 degrees Celsius, because of the fire.Credit…Emanuele Perrone/Getty Images
A local construction company donated equipment and worked for free to build a structure to shade the trunk from the scorching sun, replicating the role of leaves — now gone. Every 10 days, the tree is irrigated with organic fertilizers in the hope of encouraging the tree’s peripheral roots to grow.
“If the peripheral roots restart and manage to transfer materials to the stump,” Professor Bacchetta said, “we can hope for shoots to come out in September or October.”
The professor did not stop with the Patriarch. He visited all of the centuries-old olive groves in the area, advising farmers on how to save fire-damaged plants. His team and local authorities are planning a crowdfunding effort to buy 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 of his 500 oldest olive trees, planted over 350 years ago.
“Mr. Bacchetta unfortunately can’t do much for me,” Mr. Zampa said, “but I believe that the work on the Patriarch will psychologically help the entire community.”
Ten of his 14 Sardinian donkeys and almost all of his cattle from an ancient, endangered breed also died in the wildfire as they sought shelter in a nearby forest, which began burning shortly after. Mr. Zampa said he would focus his business on the remaining younger olive trees and start planting new ones.
“The village’s economy got burned to a cinder like the olive groves,” he said. “The fire damaged the landscape, the economy and our incomes in an incalculable way, like nothing we had seen before.”
An olive grove near Cuglieri that was destroyed last month by a wildfire.Credit…Mauro Ujetto/NurPhoto, via Getty Images
Wildfires are not new to the Cuglieri area. They are a relatively common summer phenomenon on the arid island of Sardinia, but generally are not as apocalyptic as this season’s. The extraordinarily high flames, propelled by strong winds from the south, reached the village’s homes and burned to ashes everything standing in between, including the cemetery’s ossuary.
In the last big fire, in 1994, the Patriarch was spared, though the flames burned some century-old trees nearby.
“In Cuglieri, we have always felt that there is something sacred about it, and that 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 imagine that it could not make it this time.”
Giuseppe Mariano Delogu, a retired high-ranking official with Sardinia’s forestry corps, said that in the past 40 years, wildfires followed the same roads on the hill and the mountain near Cuglieri, but the flames never reached the olive groves.
Although civil protection and the response to fires in the area have improved over the years, bureaucratic hurdles aimed at protecting Mediterranean scrubland mean that inflammable vegetation is often not cleared, creating fire hazards, experts say. High temperatures this summer, partly because of hot winds blowing in from Africa, have intensified the risks of wildfires breaking out.
“The only way to extinguish such fires is to prevent them,” Mr. Delogu said. “Technology simply fails when the fire is so strong and so vast, regardless of how many firefighters you have, they will always struggle.”
Mr. Delogu was still hopeful for the Patriarch, though.
“They are incredible trees,” he said. “I am optimistic.”