August 22, 2023

Wildfires and extreme heat are scorching Sicily. What does that mean for the island?

Over the past few years, southern Europe has been scorched by some of the most intense heat waves the continent has ever experienced. Spain, Greece, Portugal and Italy are swelteringly hot, with temperatures inching well over 40 degrees Celsius in some places. In fact, many areas around the globe have been smashing heat records as the summer continues. In early August, it was confirmed that July 2023 was the hottest month in recorded history(1).

A hot sun over some trees

Throughout July, the Southern Italian island of Sicily reached record high temperatures. In 2021, the Sicilian town of Syracuse registered temperatures of 48.8 degrees Celsius, the highest ever recorded on the continent. In 2023, Palermo smashed its heat record by 3.6 degrees. The persistent heat, along with several other driving factors, have caused wildfires to become a common and deadly occurrence.

The Cerberus heatwave, named after the three-headed hound of Hades, has been raging across the continent since June. On the Greek islands of Corfu and Rhodes, thousands of tourists and residents have been evacuated as 13,500 hectares of forest has been burned by wildfires. Even in Norway, around the world’s northernmost mainland lighthouse reached 29 degrees Celsius — the warmest in 80 years. In Sicily, wildfires — fueled by the dry air and arid vegetation — have raged around Palermo, Messina and Catania. 

Sicily's wildfire problem

Wildfire on a mountain

The island has always had a hot and humid climate as it’s subject to the Sirocco wind which blows from Arabia and the Sahara Desert. This wind combined with the effects of climate change, urbanization, and a dryer landscape have created the perfect conditions for extreme events such as heat waves, and help fuel wildfires. So far this summer, the Sicilian wildfires have:

  • Forced thousands of people to evacuate their homes, with many treated for smoke inhalation.
  • Briefly closed Palermo airport.
  • Damaged several famous nature reserves and ancient sites.
  • Reached the Bellolampo landfill, burning trash and releasing harmful dioxin emissions into the air.
  • This incident forced the Mayor of Palermo to issue an ordinance for public health. He asked people to stop eating meat, eggs, and other produce from the area — and to wash fruit and vegetables thoroughly.

Since the start of the year to July 27, 2023 Italy has lost over 50,000 hectares of vegetation to wildfires. That’s equivalent to 95,000 soccer fields. 

Wildfires burning farmland

Why are the wildfires so bad in Sicily?

While most scientists believe that the extreme weather would be “nearly impossible” without the influence of climate change, the reasons for the size and intensity of the wildfires are more diverse. So why does Sicily experience so many wildfires?

Aside from tourism, agriculture has always played a large role in Sicily’s economy. The island’s farms produce olives, wheat grapes and citrus fruits which thrive in warmer climates. However over the years, agricultural practices have been declining. Farming isn’t as attractive as it once was, especially to young Sicilians. Many are leaving rural areas and moving to the cities. This urbanization has left large areas of dry farmland abandoned with no one left to carry out the necessary maintenance and fire safety measures.

Another reason is the non-native and forest monocultures scattered around the island. In an attempt to restore and rewild forested areas, the EU and Sicilian government planted a lot of non-native (and highly flammable) species; such as pine, eucalyptus and cypress have been introduced over the years(2). 

A large forested area

These kinds of trees are particularly flammable and can be another major driver for the fire’s spread. Furthermore, large areas of forest, both natural and newly planted, in the most hard to reach areas provide the perfect environment for fires to break out. 

The majority of the wildfires (between 70-80%) are started by humans, either intentionally or unintentionally. The Mafia and other criminal groups have been linked to the deliberate setting of the fires, but other reasons include human carelessness like cigarette butts or illegal camping fires. Natural ignition from lightning, for example, is rare.

Local fire brigades are spread thin, which allows the fires to grow without intervention. With so many fires breaking out all over Sicily, civilians are taking action to support the local firefighters who are struggling to hold back the infernos. We joined one of these guerilla firefighting groups in the La Moarda mountains in northern Sicily. Thanks to our Planet Wild members, we were able to support them with protective equipment, training and other tools to fight the wildfires effectively. Watch now:

How can wildfires be prevented?

Preventing wildfires in Sicily and elsewhere is no easy task, but there are mitigation strategies that can be implemented to minimize their size and damage during the hottest months of the year.

  • Agriculture: Maintaining active farmland is one of the most effective ways of preventing wildfires. Areas that are regularly grazed or tilled decrease the amount of flammable material available for the fires to burn. An area with healthy soil and strong vegetation makes it harder for large fires to spread. This is why farmers are the main fire safety caretakers in Sicily — they are on the frontline. 
  • Animals: Free-grazing cows, goats, horses and other herbivores help keep fires at bay by eating all the dry grasses and weeds. Managed grazing like this reduces the "fine fuels" that can carry a fire, keeping it at bay. Grazers are also great for strengthening an area’s biodiversity. 
Horses grazing in a field
  • Reforestation of indigenous flora and fauna: A bigger focus on the introduction of native Mediterranean tree species – such as the cork oak tree – provide natural insulation within forests which keep them from catching fire. However, attention should also be paid to planting the right kind of trees. Planting trees without thinking about the impact can be very counterproductive. 
  • Effective landscape planning: Planting the right kinds of trees needs management, overview, and upkeep — but the impact of effective management can be enormous. In Portugal, targeted landscape planning is used to protect the villages from wildfires by creating buffer zones made up of mixed vegetation.
  • Setting controlled fires: Controlled fires create “mosaic landscapes” which help burn off flammable vegetation, decreasing the likelihood of uncontrolled fires from starting.
Wildfire surveillance team

Another way humans can tackle wildfires is by simply being present in a region. Surveillance teams can be deployed to oversee areas prone to fire — and this can be as simple as being present enough to deter arsonists. They can also act as first responders if they come across a fire in its early stages. Activities such as guided walks, cultural performances, night shift camps, auto-formation in firefighting techniques, lectures and talks all help raise awareness.

Do you want to help us make a difference in protecting the world’s forests? Become a Planet Wild member and support our next mission!

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