Sicily, My Sicily — A Lament From Inside The Inferno
Segesta, Sicily is in flames, with fires spreading throughout the region. A local author describes scenes of apocalypse, which although not unusual on the wildfire-prone island, grow worse every year — and nothing is done about it.
SEGESTA — It's very early in the morning, 7 a.m., when I receive a frantic phone call from my sister in San Vito Lo Capo, in the northwestern part of Sicily, near Trapani. She tells me that a part of her house and all the surrounding land are on fire. She’s been there since four in the morning, she said, and has been helping the firefighters keep the fire under control.
I'm in my car and on the way to help her before she can finish speaking. On the way, the lady that helps me keep my house in Palermo calls me. She tells me that nobody can hang laundry on the balconies because they are covered in ash. Everything is covered with a thick black veil that dirties everything — cars, houses, people. What she describes is something that I imagine people must have experienced during major volcanic eruptions.
The whole of Sicily is burning. Segesta and the archeological park area are on fire. The woods around the ancient abbey of San Martino Delle Scale, Monreale and the Ficuzza forest nature reserve — they’re all burning.
A post from the National Association of Firefighters in Parma, Italy, on July 25
It's the season
The situation has gotten worse since the arrival of the Scirocco (hot wind from the south-east) a few days ago, in an already scorching climate. Every Sicilian knows that when the Scirocco wind comes, fires are likely to follow. Unfortunately, these fires are often set deliberately, and sometimes in atrocious ways. Some reports describe the use of dogs and cats as living torches, as some would attach rags soaked in gasoline to their little bodies.
Half of the country is burning, just like every summer.
The flames are raging for a variety of reasons. Firstly, there has been questionable management of reforestation efforts after previous fires (it’s a well-known and long-standing issue; for years, Sicily, like the entire south of Italy, has been burning during summer, becoming a terrifying event — “the fire season”). Among those responsible for intentional fires are also those who have an interest in reducing the size of protected areas. It’s not coincidental that fires occur precisely in and around these reserves (one prominent example being the precious Zingaro Nature Reserve, located between Castellammare del Golfo and San Vito Lo Capo).
On my way to San Vito, towards my sister and her burning house, I come across the tired, distraught faces and glances of civil protection personnel, firefighters and urban guards. Alongside them, as always, and maybe even more than ever, I see many property owners who used their water reserves to protect their own and others’ belongings. Canadair planes are not enough, helicopters neither, and the security forces are stretched to the limit. Some points can only be reached and subdued from above, as is the case with the rocky ridge of Erice, where the fire has not yet been extinguished.
Half of the country is burning, just like every summer. Arsonists, the Scirocco wind, proclamations, malice, and this year’s terrible heat — it all contributes to this disaster. Every year, it’s getting worse. This year, the wind and temperature have facilitated the flames. There have been scorching temperatures of 43 °C Celsius (109.4 °F) for ten days here, and the dry grass has become easy tinder to ignite.
Fighting the fire
One enormous problem that many fail to realize or take into account is the abandonment of the countryside. In the past, at least until the 1980s, many of these fires didn’t occur because farmers worked the land and immediately intervened when something was sparked. Nowadays, much less land is cultivated and fewer people monitor it. The security of the fields is no longer a concern for communities and their administrators. Those who own small plots of land or houses in the countryside quickly learn to manage small fires by themselves. Teenagers know how to use pumps and don’t wait for firefighters. People equip themselves to protect their property and their neighbors’ using well pumps and tanks, not because they distrust the firefighters, but because they know their resources are insufficient and suffer from structural shortages.
For the scale of the fires we’re experiencing these days, three Canadair firefighting planes are not enough. We would need at least 12, and I don’t even know how many we have in all of Italy. It’s incredible that a country like ours, where this tragedy occurs every year, still doesn’t have the resources to confront it. Every year, we seem unprepared, and the disaster catches us off guard as if it were an extraordinary, sudden event.
I had the feeling that I was witnessing the apocalypse.
The mayor of San Vito Lo Capo has asked all those who own a water tanker to make it available in the fight against the fires. We have reached this point — appealing to civilians and their goodwill, which is indeed present, but clearly insufficient.
The firefighters are among the forgotten heroes of this country. They work tirelessly, underpaid, under adverse conditions, at risk and consistently perform extremely difficult tasks excellently. They are always available. We see them save lives continuously, hear them being praised. And then? It is all resolved with a pat on the back. It’s a terrible lesson for civic responsibility and, even more importantly, it’s a serious issue that costs lives and irreversibly damages our territory.
A Twitter user shares images of the fire that broke out in her town in Catania, where houses have been evacuated and areas totally destroyed as firefighters struggle to douse the flames. Jul 25, 2023.
My world, in flames
I detest sensationalism but, today, I had the feeling that I was witnessing the apocalypse. I felt surrounded by it all: at a certain point, my phone only delivered news about fires, collapses and blockades.
From Palermo: gas stations closed due to the risk of explosion, people unable to leave their homes and even inside their houses, they breathe in toxic fumes. From Messina: surrounding towns evacuated. I saw videos of the cemetery church where the iconic Florio family are buried, with flames visible from their high windows. The densely populated area around it made the situation even more terrifying.
It’s as if the world is being destroyed.
Not far from here, Greece is burning too. The whole world seems to be on fire, and today, it feels worse than an inferno.
*With help from Simonetta Sciandivasci
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