Here’s What You Need to Know About the Wildfires in Southern Italy

| Fri, 07/28/2023 - 10:10
Dry grass burns in southern Italy

It’s not only Greece that’s burning. From the tip of Puglia to the island of Sicily, the beautiful macchia mediterranea — Mediterranean scrub — of southern Italy is in flames. Wildfires have been reported in a number of places after the extreme temperatures earlier in July.

The situation is particularly dire in Sicily, where on Wednesday, firefighters worked to tame more than 338 hotspots.

While some fires have been harnessed and are under control, others rage on. They have sparked blackouts in various locations, and emergency vehicles were reported to have had difficulty navigating closures and smoke.

If you are planning a trip to Sicily or other areas of southern Italy, you can keep track of ongoing wildfires via the Italian Air Force Weather Service (information in Italian). US citizens can also look to the Consulate General of Naples for assistance.

Where are the fires located?

The areas affected around Palermo stretch from Monreale to Capo Gallo on the coast. At the time of writing, three people are confirmed to have died in the area. Major fires have been reported in Catania, Messina and Syracuse, where they broke out in city limits.

In Calabria, the situation seems to be improving, but a few fires are being watched carefully in the areas of Reggio Calabria and Catanzaro.

In Puglia, beachgoers watched helicopters drop water on a pine forest that had caught fire in the Salento region before being evacuated. Others were reported inland, near Foggia in the North and close to Matera in Basilicata.

A July of extremes

The country experienced extreme heat over the past month, reaching record temperatures in the south of 116F (46.7C). Dozens of cities were on red alert. By July 27, temperatures had dropped, but the fires continued to spread. Many had been caused by arson, and firefighters were using drones to monitor forests for arsonists (which proved useful after one was caught red-handed).

The situation has been exacerbated by strong winds. The fires were a stark contrast to the intense storms that have been tearing through northern Italy, causing damage to buildings, uprooting trees, and halting public transportation.

Economic damage and refunds for travelers

On Tuesday morning, the Palermo airport closed due to nearby fires, letting through only a handful of flights. While all flights to Palermo have resumed, the Catania airport is currently closed following an indoor fire unrelated to those outside. Authorities are saying reopening is scheduled for next week, though operations look set to be limited to a small, temporary terminal.

The convent of Santa Maria di Gesù, from the 15th century, burned on the southern edge of Palermo. Like those in many other heritage sites, this fire was the result of arson. The archaeological park of Segesta was also burned, but miraculously the monuments came out unscathed.

Damage across the island is estimated at around €250 million. Despite record numbers of visitors this year, many are concerned about the economic damage to the tourism sector that is expected to arise from the emergency.  

For anyone who has traveled to the area starting on July 16, the tourism minister has proposed a designated €10 million to reimburse plane tickets and hotel reservations for those without insurance, said Civil Protection Minister Nello Musumeci.