Miracle amidst the flames: fire sweeps through the forest but leaves a single home perfectly intact

Suddenly, Lorena turned back to go inside and say a final goodbye. I held her tight, and we cried together. We called out for the Virgin Mary and my late father, as memories of our life there flooded our minds.

  • 1 month ago
  • March 24, 2024
7 min read
The fire circled Gisela and Lorena's home but miraculously, never touched it. | Photo courtesy of Gisela Fincchiaro The fire circled Gisela and Lorena's home but miraculously, never touched it. | Photo courtesy of Gisela Fincchiaro
journalist’s notes
interview subject
Gisela Finochiaro, 34, is a physical education teacher who purchased a home with her friend Lorena in 2018, nestled in the rural landscape of Patagonia, Argentina. Following a devastating fire that spared only their house, Gisela and Lorena are committed to staying and reforesting the area, determined to witness its rebirth, even if it takes decades.
background information
On January 25, 2024, a wildfire ignited in Los Alerces National Park in Patagonia, Argentina. By February 4, efforts to extinguish the blaze had been unsuccessful, and it spread to approximately 8,000 hectares, reaching the rural area of Alto Río Percy in the province of Chubut. The fire necessitated the evacuation of the area’s most remote house, including the one inhabited by the two friends who had relocated there five years ago. For more information, visit El Chubut.

CHUBUT, Argentina — Nestled in the forest near Esquel, my friend Lorena and I shared a home full of joy and laughter, but on February 4, 2024, our lives changed forever. A forest fire engulfed the area, consuming eight hectares or 19 acres of land.

Only a year before, we witnessed a similar scene as smoke and flames lapped at the earth. That time, it did not escalate. We reassured ourselves this fire would do the same. Then, the air turned thick and toxic. The scent of burning permeated everything, and smoke invaded our nostrils.

The fire raged on, unstoppable, and we knew disaster was moments away. Lorena and I fled our beloved home, surrounded by a desolate, gray landscape of ash. We believed we lost everything. When the fire vanquished and we returned, miraculously, our wooden house stood untouched, while everything surrounding it lay in waste.

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Thick black smoke rose from the mountain, residents endangered

Tucked away in rural Río Percy, not far from Esquel, our isolated home is surrounded by a native forest, distant from neighbors. On that Sunday afternoon, around 5:00 p.m., we spotted thick, black smoke rising from the mountain.

We thought we had time; that the fire would extinguish before it got to us, but we were wrong. As the smoke grew darker and the fire’s intensity increased, we felt the danger pressing toward us. The fire continued to rage.

One thing escalated our concern. Lorena and I did not just live in that house. We shared a dream, to transform our haven into a paradise in the forest for tourists, and a sanctuary for local wildlife. The fire not only threatened our home, but our project and the lives of countless animals. Some escaped, while others met a terrible fate.

With fear pulsing through our bodies and sadness reflecting in our eyes, we made a decision. We had to leave. Along with friends who were visiting at the time, we all piled into a single vehicle, taking nothing but a jug of fuel. We feared it might explode if the fire reached it. As our home disappeared in the rear-view mirror, we held onto a sliver of hope that the fire would be like last year; it would stop.

Yet, as our vehicle moved across the 17 kilometers to Esquel, our phones began to chime with alerts. The fire barreled forward rapidly. We never faced something this big and fast before. Dropping our friends off at home, the departure felt hurried and unfathomable. Just then, two neighbors reached out. One who takes care of our house warned, “Lore, the fire is dangerously close to your house. I’m going to grab some of your belongings.”

Neighbors and homeowners desperately attempt to salvage their belongings

When a second neighbor informed us that authorities began evacuating nearby towns, reality set in. Lorena and I knew we needed to save what we could; to go back. Intense distress set in. We called my uncle to ask for help moving whatever we could salvage. Lorena and I braced ourselves for the worst. Around 7:00 p.m. we formed a caravan of people frantically trying to save our possessions from the encroaching flames.

The memory of desperately hoping to preserve something – anything – still sends shivers down my spine. A single Gendarmerie officer from the fire brigade led the caravan, making progress frustratingly slow. The brigade urged us to remove our possessions quickly and leave. They had no time to extinguish the fire. With the route cleared, we raced to our house at full speed and began loading a few pieces of furniture and appliances into the truck.

Looking over, we spotted a line of fire right at the edge of the forest, only 500 meters away. The situation seemed out of control as the time came for firefighters to intervene. A wave of anger and anguish washed over us. We stood there, watching the fire advance, feeling helpless and isolated. The injustice felt overwhelming as we witnessed the destruction and faced the potential loss of our home. Paralyzed by desperation, I felt frozen, but then I sprang into action.

As we prepared to leave, I instinctively went to lock the door, but Lorena stopped me and asked, “Why lock it if we’ve already lost everything?” We felt sure our home would soon be completely engulfed in flames. The sadness became crushing. Outside, the landscape looked like a grey sea, and our hearts mirrored that desolation. As the fire burned, we felt overwhelming despair.

“We stood there, watching the fire advance, feeling helpless and isolated”

Suddenly, Lorena turned back to go inside and say a final goodbye. I held her tight, and we cried together. We called out for the Virgin Mary and my late father, as memories of our life there flooded our minds. I thought about everything we experienced in our home, recalling the joy of sitting and watching the full moon and stars from our little house in wonder. We cherished camping, hiking, cooking outdoors, and enjoying music with friends by a campfire.

Our house served as a warm refuge for us and for every nature lover who visited. We always opened it to anyone who wanted to experience nature as we did. The nearby Nahuelpán hills added a unique touch to our home’s landscape. We also collected water from a natural mountain spring, but unfortunately, the fire consumed all the hoses we used.

When we finally drove away in the truck with the few belongings we gathered, panic and resignation hung heavy in the air. I will never forget the sight of smoke hovering over the city as we arrived. The sky looked devoid of light, shrouded in darkness, with ash blanketing the tree leaves. Breathing became a struggle. The suffocating air and the distant smell of burning felt desperate.

The scene reminded me of the Chaltén volcano eruption in Chile. The city, just 200 kilometers from the straight line of the forest fire, plunged into darkness at 3:00 p.m. Ash fell everywhere, and living among mountains meant that any atmospheric phenomenon hovered above the city, creating a smoky canopy, trapping us in a gray pit. The sight of hardworking people potentially losing their livelihoods in an instant became too much to bear and I broke down.

A miracle in the forest: the fire circled the house, never touching it

Safely away from the fire, we headed to my mother’s house. Embracing her, I poured out my sorrows. Now 11:00 p.m., we felt exhausted and in shock, praying for a miracle. Sleep eluded us as the inconceivability of our dreams turning to ashes sunk in.

At 7:00 a.m. the next day, I anxiously monitored the real-time NASA application, but it appeared to have a one- or two-hour delay. I wanted to pinpoint the fire’s exact location. Just then, I discovered the fire did sweep across our property. I turned to Lorena and said, “It’s over,” as we fell into a silent embrace, crying in resignation.

An hour later, municipal workers sent us a video on WhatsApp. Somehow, our house miraculously remained untouched. Dumbfounded and feeling skeptical, we needed to see it with our own eyes. More messages and videos poured in, all confirming the unbelievable outcome. The fact that the fire circled our house, never burning it, feels unfathomable. Our dream, our lives, and everything we built remained intact.

In the aftermath, the brigade members began cooling the ground because remnants of vegetation retain heat at the tree roots. Approaching the area felt like walking through a cemetery of trees, a skeletal reminder of what was once a natural paradise. When we sought answers about the inexplicable event, they simply said it was a miracle. The sight of our home standing brought us to tears.

The cypress posts of the house, the phenolic walls, and the wooden openings should have easily ignited in the flames. Yet, there it sat: our house unscathed and our dream alive to share the beauty of nature with others.

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