August 15, 2023

How we’re training guerilla wildfire fighters

Sicily sees by far the highest number of wildfires in all of Italy. And it’s getting worse: The frequency and intensity of fires are reaching a point where nature can’t recover anymore. State fire fighters are often overwhelmed and understaffed. That’s why guerilla firefighting brigades are forming to desperately try and protect their local forests.

We went to the Sicilian mountains to help provide crucial equipment and training to civilians that are fighting the inferno at the frontlines – to help them go on and prevent even more landscapes from going up in flames.

Watch how we helped train civilians to become guerilla wildfire fighters: 

Why Sicily is burning

From 2008 to 2021, over 300,000 hectares of Sicilian land went up in smoke. That’s more than double that of any other area of Italy. And the frequency has increased dramatically since the 1980s. How could an entire island turn into a tinderbox?

Fires that are burning across a mountain range in Italy

It’s because of three ways humans have meddled with the natural balance:

1. Climate Change

Global warming has brought a rise in temperatures to most places of the world. This year, the city of Palermo experienced temperatures of 47 degrees celsius, shattering previous records by 2 full degrees. In an already dry climate this turns any organic debris into highly flammable material.

2. Monocultures

Modern forestry has replaced a native, climate resilient trees with fast-growing monocultures of pine and eucalyptus. Both these tree species catch and spread fire much faster than the many oak species that originally dominated the landscape.

3. Loss of large herbivores

Human settlements have displaced nature's own fire brigades: Wild grazers like deer, mouflons, or wild horses used to keep dry grass and shrubs short, that otherwise fuel the fires we see today. At first, their role was taken over by domestic herds, mostly goats. But as young people are moving to the cities, the rural population is declining and so are the number of goat herds. This means in spring, the grass can thrive, un-stopped by either wild or domestic animals. And then summer comes, and turns the entire land into a gigantic dry haystack.

Wild horses that are grazing which is a way to prevent wildfires

Because of these factors, state firefighters are stretched thin across 11,000 deployments in one year and often can't control the situation alone anymore. That’s why local Sicilians have started to self-organize and join the fight. 

Who we’re partnering with

One of these groups asked us for help. So we went to the La Moarda mountain range in northern Sicily. Its forest cover connects the villages of Altofonte and Piana degli Albanesi. La Morada is home to wild cats, crested porcupines, Italian hares, and a plethora of migratory birds. Or rather, it used to be.

Because in 2020, a huge wildfire broke out that completely burned down the forest. Locals and firefighters weren’t prepared for a fire like that. It hit while fire guards were already busy fighting elsewhere. And even once they came, their fire planes couldn’t fly after nightfall. So locals took up the fight, day and night to help save what they could. But to little avail. With over 1,000 degrees celsius, the fire burnt so hot that most organisms above or below ground couldn’t survive, and it moved so fast that many animals couldn’t flee. 

While wildfires are a natural phenomenon, the high frequency and intensity we see in Sicily is not, as it leaves no time for nature to recover: new tree seedlings sprouting after a fire are unlikely to reach adulthood before the next fire consumes everything again. 

A wildfire in Sicily

To better protect their wilderness, our local partners formed a grassroots anti wildfire organization. Their civilian expertise ranges from permaculture, to forestry, to ornithology, organic shepherding, and eco-management. But what unites them is that any form of nature restoration in this region ultimately leads you to wildfire prevention. They decided to be ready to face the fire when necessary.

Our support

With the support of the Planet Wild community, we’ve made sure that they get the proper training and equipment to be successful. Together, we set up a wildfire training camp in the mountains of La Moarda, teaching fire prevention and safety measures, as well as direct response tactics: how to approach fires, when you have to escape, how many people are needed, how to factor in terrain, vegetation, and wind conditions. 

To get started, we brought help from MAI (Movimento Antincendio Boschivo) – the first guerilla firefighting group in Sicily. They have fought over 100 wildfires already and now share their deep knowledge on self-organization principles, effective prevention measures, and direct fire response with others. They told us that timing is crucial when fighting fires. In the first minutes or first hour, the fire is still small enough to extinguish it with less tools. That’s why direct response teams are becoming such a crucial aspect. 

Guerilla wildfire fighting training in Sicily

But of course they need the right equipment. So we made sure of that as well: The Planet Wild community is funding what’s needed most on the ground: water pump backpacks, fireproof footwear, and a mobile fire extinguisher unit. The gear is built specifically for the terrain. It’s robust and simple to handle.

The impact

Our camp came at a critical moment: at the beginning of wildfire season and only two weeks before La Moarda was burning again. And the local team went out to fight, even though their training was not yet fully complete. But they were better prepared than last time, and were able to stop the fires in some crucial places. They’ll be even better prepared next time. And this progress is what makes all the difference.

Together, the team is already looking beyond emergency response. How can we transform landscapes in a way that makes them more climate resilient through rewilding and permaculture practices? The truth is, we need a lot of transformation. But there are people on the ground already shaping that transformation today.  And we, the Planet Wild community, are here to support them. 

A Sicilian green landscape

A personal note

This mission took me the longest to wrap my head around. As a northerner, the concept of ordinary citizens training in guerilla fire response tactics did not compute with me at first. It took a few conversations before I understood that this was a brutal part of reality. And that these are just ordinary people, who just want to live ordinary lives, but can’t. People, who take it upon themselves to protect a diverse part of nature for the rest of us. 

The sheer physical commitment and the length to which they are willing to go in these already scorching temperatures was nothing but impressive. And more people are joining the fight. As I’m writing this, the team reports that more local groups are already forming in the wider region. Spreading the idea of self-efficacy and the power of community is perhaps the most impactful aspect of all.

Markus Gilles
Co-Founder, Planet Wild

A bison wearing sunglasses

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