‘A disaster without precedent’: Sardinia wildfires ravage west of Italian island

More than 1,000 people were forced to flee and some 20,000 hectares destroyed as wildfires swept the Italian island of Sardinia for three days straight.

'A disaster without precedent': Sardinia wildfires ravage west of Italian island
File photo: A plane putting out an earlier wildfire in Sardinia in July 2009. Photo: ALESSANDRA CHERGIA / AFP

“It’s a disaster without precedent,” the island’s governor Christian Solinas said, as hot southwesterly winds complicated the efforts to put out blazes raging in the west of the island and the region declared a state of emergency.

Nearly 1,500 people were evacuated from their homes over the weekend, including residents of a care home, according to Ansa news agency.

Frightened tourists were among those fleeing the seaside village of Porto Alabe.

Canadair planes could be seen collecting water off the coast of Porto Alabe, before flying low over beachfront properties and emptying it over the blazing vegetation just behind them.

The flames are believed to have broken out near the village of Bonarcado in the province of Oristano on Friday when a car caught fire in a traffic accident. Winds and hot, dry conditions meant that the fire rapidly spread inland and then down towards the coast.

About 20,000 hectares of vegetation had gone up in flames, with properties damaged and animals killed, Solinas said.

Firefighting aircraft from France and Greece arrived in Italy on Sunday following an appeal for help in taming the fires.

Italy’s Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said that the civil protection agency had appealed for planes from other European countries. 

A vast area in Oristano province was “on its knees due to the devastating fire”, he said.

By Monday morning the fire danger level remained “high”, said the civil protection agency, which issued a warning for swathes of the central- and north-western coast. 

About 7,500 emergency workers, including members of Italy’s forest police and the Red Cross, were helping evacuees and those at risk, the fire service said.

Solinas said it was too early to know the extent of the destruction but he would ask the government to allocate recovery fund money for reforestation.

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi is following the situation and sent his “full solidarity to everyone affected and support for all those tirelessly doing their best in the rescue efforts”, his office said in a statement.

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Theft of sand from Sardinia’s beaches on the rise again – despite fines of up to €3,000

With the return of mass tourism this summer came a new increase in the theft of sand, pebbles and shells from Sardinia’s protected beaches, environmental campaigners say.

Theft of sand from Sardinia’s beaches on the rise again - despite fines of up to €3,000
A beach in Sardinia's Porto San Paolo. Photo: Daniel Slim/AFP

A campaign group called ‘Sardegna rubata e depredata’ (Sardinia robbed and plundered) estimated that at least six tonnes of sand had been taken from the island’s beaches this year alone, mostly by foreign visitors.

In 2017, it became illegal to remove sand, shells and pebbles from Sardinia’s beaches as they were classed as protected resources. People breaking these rules face fines of between €500 and €3,000 – and anyone caught attempting to take larger quantities risks a prison term.

But it seems that many visitors haven’t got the message, as sand theft – and the number of fines being issued to those caught stealing – has risen again this summer with the return of international tourists.

READ ALSO: What is Italy doing to protect its coastline?

In July alone, customs officers at Sardinia’s Alghero airport seized 1.4 kilograms of sand from the island’s beaches during systematic bag searches, the Ansa news agency reported on Tuesday.

Items found in the possession of departing passengers at the airport last month reportedly included numerous plastic bottles filled with sand, 743 sea pebbles, 43 shells and a rock weighing 1.2 kg. 

All passengers caught with the illegal souvenirs were fined, police said.

Campaigners said most culprits are foreign tourists who usually “don’t really have a motive”. 

“Perhaps to arouse the envy of friends and relatives, or to recreate the feeling of the holiday in their living rooms, or even to decorate a home aquarium,” the group wrote on its Facebook page.

“Some do it probably because there is such a sense of discomfort in having to leave the island. They try in a desperate way to take it with them, in their hands, instead of keeping the memories in the heart,” the group said.

In rarer cases, the motive for the theft appears to be profit – with reports in Italian media that bags of precious pink sand from Sardinia’s protected beaches are being sold online to “collectors”.

A couple of French tourists last year were caught trying to board a ferry with 40kg of sand in 14 large plastic bottles in the boot of their car.