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Arsonists Behind More than Half of Italy's Wildfires, Officials Say

In this photo released by the Italian Firefighters, a view of a violent wildfire that burned the historical pinewood in Pescara, central Italy, Aug. 1, 2021.

About 800 wildfires have struck Italy this year, tripling the normal annual average and causing millions of dollars in damage. But more than half of them were likely started by arsonists or farmers breaching fire rules, authorities say.

A 50-year-old sheep and goat farmer was arrested last week after a surveillance camera captured him setting undergrowth afire Thursday near the town of Montesarchio, 48 kilometers from Naples in southern Italy, near to where another wildfire raged last year.

Local officials say the farmer likely wanted to renew his pasture by burning it off in defiance of strict rules regulating such burns. They say he tried to get rid of his lighter when he spotted Carabinieri officers later heading toward him.

For law enforcement authorities, even more troubling are the arsonists.

Last week, Roberto Cingolani, minister for ecological transition, told parliament that 57.4% of Italy’s recent wildfires were caused by arson, and 13.7% the result of unintentional human action.

“More than 70% of the fires in Italy are our responsibility,” he said. “Less than 2% are caused naturally, for example, by a lightning strike. For 4.4%, the cause is undetermined, and 22% are unclassifiable situations in which it is difficult to know what triggered the fire,” he added.

With the earth being parched, the fires quickly take hold, Italian officials say, noting that climate change has brought unprecedented high temperatures to the country, drying out the land and making it even more combustible.

Most of the wildfires have been in the southern regions of Lazio, Campania, Puglia, Calabria, Basilicata and Sicily. Blazes have also occurred in the central provinces of Tuscany, Umbria and Abruzzo, where on Sunday vacationers were evacuated after a wildfire tore through a pine wood near the coastal city of Pescara.

Wildfires on the island of Sardinia have been described by the local media as “apocalyptic,” and by the end of the month will likely have caused more economic damage than the costs from blazes in 1983 and 1994. Sardinia has declared an official “state of calamity” and called for more central government assistance.

General view of a burnt area in the aftermath of a wildfire in Cuglieri, Sardinia, Italy, July 25, 2021, in this screen grab obtained from a social media video. (Credit: Cronache Nuoresi)
General view of a burnt area in the aftermath of a wildfire in Cuglieri, Sardinia, Italy, July 25, 2021, in this screen grab obtained from a social media video. (Credit: Cronache Nuoresi)

According to Coldiretti, the country’s main agricultural association, the extreme heat and a lack of rainfall are causing a “worrying drought that is decimating crops but also favors the spread of fires and the action of arsonists.”

The association said in a statement that the economic cost was incalculable from the fires, which have “destroyed tens of thousands of hectares of woods and Mediterranean scrub with charred trees, olive groves, destroyed pastures and led to a real slaughter of animals.”

Coldiretti also said it believes that 60% of the fires are lit by arsonists, some with mafia ties, in disputes over land or in a bid to force farmers to sell to make way for industrial development.

“Arsonists are devastating the Apulian countryside,” Coldiretti President Savino Muraglia said.

A pair of arsonists were arrested last week in Troina in central Sicily, where solar power plants are being built.

“We must pay close attention to the hypothesis that solar interests want to undermine farmers,” Troina Mayor Fabio Venezia told La Repubblica newspaper.

Arson investigations have also begun in Lazio, Calabria and Sicily, where Claudio Fava, head of the regional anti-mafia commission, said at a recent hearing, “We must take note that in Sicily, it is not barbecues and brushwood causing these fires.”

Fava said 98% of the island's fires are being caused by “willful misconduct.”

Other fires are thought to be started because of personal disputes and grudges. In Puglia, a young farmer near Lecce appeared to have fallen afoul of some of his neighbors in June. A fire burned much of his land, tools and irrigation system.