A Picturesque, Damning View Of Our Wildfire Planet

The Puglia region in Italy in flames

Alessio Perrone

Salento, the very southeastern tip of Italy, is a flat and shrubby land of farmers, stunning beaches and simple rural villages built around Baroque churches. Thousands of Italians and foreigners flock to this part of the Puglia region on the heel of the Italian boot every summer, lured by its promise of a rustic, idyllic break.

My family is there now, like every summer, because that's where they (we!) come from: my grandfather was one of the farmers that looked after the centuries-old olive trees, vineyards and orchards that grow in the parched, deep red earth under the scorching summer sun.

But it has more recently also become a land of wildfires. Dozens of hectares of farmland have gone up in smoke during a series of testing heatwaves — the harshest of which is predicted to hit later this week. The flames have sieged the highways, scared tourists off the camping sites, then danced towards the beaches, in scenes I have not seen there since I was born. It is just one flare up in a rash of fires that have consumed some 103,000 hectares across Italy so far this year.

Of course, it's part of a continental, if not global, inferno. The world has watched in awe as wildfires ravaged places as far away as Siberia and Turkey, California and Canada. Earlier this week, tourists and thousands of residents were forced to flee the Greek island of Evia after it experienced the worst heatwave in decades, propelling temperatures well above 40℃ and creating ideal conditions for fires to rage. On the other side of the Mediterranean, Tunisia's fires have suddenly turned deadly. After Greece, Italy has recorded the second-highest number of wildfires in Europe so far, with southern regions like Sicily, Sardinia and Puglia burning at unprecedented speeds.

Watching from a distance, I couldn't help but see the events as predictable — most of my generation has known the dangers of climate change for years. When a major UN climate report this week described climate change as an inevitable, unprecedented emergency that is happening sooner and faster than expected, that too was no surprise.

We've been warned plenty of times before. We knew there would be consequences, damages, casualties. We have, indeed, seen the fires spreading.

And yet it's a different feeling not only to know about the threat of wildfires but to see it on your doorstep, closing in on your family, devouring the increasingly arid land your grandfather used to look after. Even if I've always been conscious of climate change and have tried to act accordingly, I never thought it would touch someone I know so soon. It's frightening, mesmerizing, hypnotic — like watching a fire burn — to think that even myself and my generation have been staring at reality, and yet never truly realizing that it's already happening. That it's coming for us.

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