Ed writes: We arrived in Cauquenes on Saturday, the 21st of January. As we left town driving south, we saw active fires consuming old vineyards, pine forests, and the grasslands speckled with espino trees that are characteristic of the zone. The fire crews were gathered in the shade along the road, working to keep the fire from advancing into the town. I had called Javier, our vineyard hand, earlier to ask how were we, and he said we were not in danger, but as we pulled into the Tequel vineyard site, we could see the fire raging off in the distance. Over the course of the afternoon, it kept moving steadily toward us. The neighbors were all out trying to contain the fire to the dry creek bed to the north side of the properties. The wind was in our favor, pushing the fire toward the hillsides and pine forest to the north. But even so, the fire crept meter by meter closer to us.
The heat was stifling, and it was hard to imagine what we could really do to stop the fire. Up the hill, we saw bushes and trees explode in flames. By evening, the wild fire had reached the northwest corner of our property, which was the most vulnerable to fire entry. In that section of the vineyard, hundred-year-old país vines are interspaced with some abandoned rows of dry grass and brambles. I spent about two hours hoeing a fire break about 30 meters long in the dry grass next to the tempranillo block. It was mostly to expend all the negative energy accumulated watching the fire consume the neighbors’ land. By nightfall the fire was in the Tequel creek bed below the vineyard, raging away. I was standing in the blackberry bushes about 15 meters from the fire with Esteban, Javier´s teenaged son, when a coipo, Chile’s largest rodent, came scrambling out for high ground. He must have been a good omen, because right about then the fire brigade showed up and the wind miraculously died down. The fire stopped advancing and eventually burnt itself out. I crawled into the back of the Subaru with Jen around 12:30, still not sure of the outcome, but not really useful to the fight. I heard the neighbors leave around two in the morning. At first light, I woke up to find half the fire brigade sleeping on the ground next to their truck.
Sunday afternoon we had a tasting at Erasmo. We were nervous about leaving, but there were no open flames and everything seemed OK. When we got back, the whole neighborhood had just finished battling the blaze again to keep it from going toward some homes up the hill to the east.
The fire has affected just about everyone in Cauquenes , but those who will suffer most are the small growers. These famers generally do not have tractors or money for herbicides to create fire breaks, and their plantings are often haphazard. Consequently, the fire wiped out huge areas of small farms, fed by the late summer grasses. With the low prices, many growers will not replant or train up from the roots again. And the surviving vineyards will have to worry about smoke taint in the grapes, which could mean the loss of the 2017 harvest.
As for us, we were incredibly lucky. Our vineyard was spared, and the wind pushed most of the smoke away from the grapes, so we likely will not have to contend with smoke taint. Maybe we’ll adopt the water rat as a symbol of good fortune. Funny thing—no one had ever seen a coipo in the Tequel creek before, because half the year it is dry. I wish him well!