Olive farmer’s 50 years of work perish in flames in Swieqi grassfire

Joe Caruana lost around 250 olive trees in the 30 May grassfire in the Swieqi valley, costing him some €95,000

A labour of love that lasted half a century went up in flames for farmer Joe Caruana, 67 when on 30 May, he lost his 30-tumolo olive grove to the flames of a grassfire that erupted in the Wied il-Kbir in Swieqi. 

Caruana’s family had worked the land here for over 200 years, with Joe venturing into oil production in the last years, where he spent most of time attending to hundreds of olive trees. 

A month since losing his grove to the Swieqi grassfire, the grim aftermath is visible for everyone to see: a vast amount of burnt trees, grassland and the nearby fields, with the odour of burnt wood still persistent in the area.

Farmer Joe Caruana said he could have lost over €95,000 in produce from his burnt trees
Farmer Joe Caruana said he could have lost over €95,000 in produce from his burnt trees

In a tour of the grove, Caruana pointed at the various number of trees that survived the fires. Once utilised to grow seasonal produce like potatoes, cauliflowers and onions, Caruana later shifted his focus onto olive oil. “We still have a good number of fruit trees, but the produce is for personal consumption. However, the production of olive oil is commercialised. Last year we managed to produce 274 litres of pure olive oil; in between 2009 and 2021, we produced over 1,990 litres. We started out around 15 years ago and we kept increasing the number of trees every year.”

Caruana remarked how he and his siblings attend to their crops every day including Sunday. “It takes a lot of work to ultimately produce the olive oil. Towards the end of October, the olives start to mature and the picking starts. We don’t use any machines and we pick it all by hand.”

Caruana’s family does not use machines, fearing they could damage the produce, which ultimately affects the final product. “We are usually around six people, my siblings and some friends who come over to help. The olives are stored in boxes in fridges and when we collect around 400 kilograms. I take it all to Wardija where it is crushed.” 

The crushed olives are then left to settle for around 12 days, after which the sediment is removed and the olive oil remains. 

It was on 30 May, that Joe and his sister were resting in the shade at 2pm, eating a piece of bread, when they noticed a grass-fire at a distance. “The fire seemed quite distant but in around five minutes, the whole valley was taken over by the flames,” Caruana said. “Everywhere was on fire and I can’t tell you the desperation I felt as 50 years of hard work perished in flames.” 

Caruana explained that the fire originated from Wied il-Għomor in San Ġwann, but the high winds on the day made it easier for the fire to spread rapidly. The Civil Protection Department was quick to respond, appearing on the spot instantly. But Caruana expressed disappointment that the fire-fighting efforts were mainly focused on the villas overlooking the valley, whilst his trees were destroyed to ashes. 

30 firefighters, four officers and 10 CPD vechicles were deployed on the day and over 120,000 litres of water were utilised. “Luckily, since we plough our land, the fire didn’t spread as much as it did in other areas. But this is not the first time we had grass-fires in the area and we make sure to plough often so as to minimise the risks. Regretfully on that day, the winds did not favour us,” Caruana said. 

Despite the peril, Caruana did not abandon the place and stayed in his field until late in the evening. The CPD returned to the site over the course of the next four days, as some carob trees kept on burning for at least eight days.

Caruana estimates that the damaged equipment and loss of revenue from the burnt trees, could have cost him around €95,000. “The damages were terrible, as some 250 olive trees were completely or partially burnt down.”

He said some of the olive trees were around 30-35 years old. Orange trees, fig trees, vines, fir trees and cypress trees were also burned down in the fires. 

“We lost the whole irrigation system in the fires and we now have to start over from scratch, spending a lot of time and money in an attempt to salvage our operations,” Caruana said in desperation.  “We spoke to several experts who recommended that we keep watering the trees continuously, to aid in their recovery.” 

Once he realised the extent of the damage, Caruana even thought of giving everything up.  “It didn’t take long before I changed my mind, as I can’t imagine myself doing anything else. No one takes farming away from you, if you’re passionate about it.”

“We won’t make any revenue this year and the next, as it will take around two years for the olive trees to produce fruit again. This also depends on the amount of rainfall and most probably they won’t produce as many olives as they did before.” 

An inquiry into the grassdfire has been launched and Caruana provided the police with a breakdown of the expenses he now faces. He remains skeptical that this was a natural grassfire, suspecting it was accidentally caused by human intervention. “Someone must have been burning some material and probably underestimated the severity of the wind,” Caruana said.