Driving home from work the other day I could see smoke in the distance. When only 10 minutes away it was clear that this was a major fire and that it was not far from our house. By the time I arrived in our village , fire engines were screaming down the narrow lanes and the road past our house was closed off.
The Cave Cooperative at the end of our road became the nerve centre of operations as the full force of the emergency services swung into operation. After persuading a fire officer that I only lived a short distance away, he let me past. The children were out, so I took a stroll down the drive to see what was happening.I did not have to go far as by now a huge pall of smoke dominated the skyline and the fire was increasing in intensity at an alarming rate. Fortunately the wind was blowing the fire away from our direction into an area with no dwellings just pine forest, garrigue and vines.
There then followed a massive concerted effort on behalf of the fire service to bring the fire under control. 240 firemen, over 100 appliances and 10 Canadair were deployed to tackle the blaze. Four years of drought, tinder-dry forest, blazing sunshine and a steady nor’wester soon fanned the flames over a considerable area. Around midnight the wine changed direction and the smoke spread over our house. My wife and I decided we had better pack a few essentials in case we were asked to evacuate as the fire was by now less than 2kms away. She packed our wedding album, the kids’ favourite toys and passports. I packed my record collection and saxophone.
It took 2 days for the fire to be extinguished. A stray spark from a vigneron’s tractor had been enough to ignite the biggest fire in France this year. Over 900 hectares went up in smoke, it was all over the papers and even made the national news.The response from the emergency services had been nothing short of fantastic. All through July and August fire engines are based in villages around the Languedoc to enable a rapid response in the event of a fire. Most days for the firemen are filled with endless rounds of poker and petanque waiting for the call. When it did happen, they were on the scene within minutes.
Despite the extensive area affected, no houses were damaged or people injured. The vines also played their part, acting as firebreaks and preventing it spreading even further. They stand like an oasis of green surrounded by an ashen lunar landscape. Unbowed, although a little singed, this majestic plant shows again what a great asset to the “paysage” it is. Perhaps the authorities should take this into account when deciding when and where to grub up vineyards.
The vines have survived, the fruit is now being harvested and the quality is looking very good. I may, finally, be able to use “a hint of an autumn bonfire” in my tasting notes for the 2008 Corbières this year.