Italian wildfires ‘three times worse’ than average as heatwave continues

The prolonged heatwave and severe drought hitting Italy are fuelling wildfires at a rate of one every two days as summer begins, studies show.

Wildfire in Tuscany
As the heatwave keeps raging across the country, wildfires are breaking out at the rate of one major event every two days. Photo by Federico SCOPPA / AFP

The number of wildfires recorded so far in 2022 is already three times higher than average, with the country registering at least one fire every two days according to Coldiretti, Italy’s national confederation of farmers.

The exceptionally high temperatures of the past few months combined with the ongoing lack of rainfall – down by nearly 50 percent on this time last year – have dried out swathes of land up and down the country, increasing the frequency and often the severity of wildfires.

READ ALSO: Italy’s heatwave to last another week and get even hotter, say forecasts

“Italy is ablaze, with over 9,000 hectares [of land] having gone up in smoke in the last six months”, said Coldiretti, adding that the heatwave is “laying siege” to major cities including Bologna, Rome, Florence and Naples.

Last year, around 150,000 hectares of land up and down the peninsula were destroyed by wildfires and 659 firestorms were recorded. But the latest round of data collected by EFFIS (the European Forest Fire Information System) suggest that 2022 is going to be a much worse year.

In the last weekend alone, an entire pine forest in Minervino Murge (60 kilometres north of Bari) was completely destroyed after a wildfire broke out, while several small wildfires were registered in the provinces of Palermo (Sicily) and Ravenna (Emilia-Romagna) from Saturday.

On Sunday, a fire also broke out in a thicket in Rome’s Ponte di Nona area, though the prompt intervention of the local fire brigade prevented the flames from spreading to the surrounding constructions, preventing more serious damage.   

READ ALSO: What to do and what to avoid if you see a wildfire in Italy

Wildfire in Sardinia

Wildfires can quickly spread to residential areas if not promptly extinguished by the local fire department. Photo by Massimo LOCCI / AFP

As the current heatwave shows no sign of relenting and rain is not expected for at least another week, events of this kind are only likely to keep occurring and farmers across the country, many of whom have already been hit hard by the drought, are yet again expected to take the brunt.

Coldiretti warned that Italy must prepare for “a real national emergency” with the agriculture sector crisis set to relive the woes of 2003, when the country registered the hottest summer in 40 years and as many as 9,697 wildfires were recorded throughout the year.

READ ALSO: Drought hits Italy’s hydroelectric plants amid energy crisis

“Every fire costs Italians over 10,000 euros per hectare, including both the immediate cost of putting out the fire and recovering the land and long-term expenses for the reconstruction of environmental and financial systems,” said Coldiretti.

While the current drought and ensuing fires are sure to hit the country’s economy hard, things are predicted to worsen in the coming decades.

Climate change is expected to mean the number of extreme wildfires recorded worldwide will increase by 14 percent by 2030 and by 50 percent by the end of the century, according to UN estimates.

If you see a wildfire in Italy, follow our guidance on what to do and what to avoid.

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Italy reports a surge in deaths this summer due to extreme heat

A series of intense heatwaves caused Italy's mortality rate to spike in June and July, according to a health ministry report.

Italy reports a surge in deaths this summer due to extreme heat

Italy’s heat-related mortality rate was 21 percent above the seasonal average for the first two weeks of July, the health ministry said in a bulletin published on Monday.

There were 733 more deaths in 33 major Italian cities monitored by health authorities between July 1st and July 15th than in a typical year – a 21 percent increase on the average for that period.

READ ALSO: Will summer 2022 be Italy’s hottest ever?

Some central-southern parts of the country, where the heat has been particularly concentrated, experienced a far sharper spike in the death rate: by up to 72 percent in Latina and 56 percent in Viterbo (respectively south and north of Rome); 56 percent in Bari (Puglia); 51 percent in Cagliari (Sardinia); and 48 percent in Catanzaro (Calabria).

June also saw more deaths than in a typical year in Italy, the numbers show: a nine percent increase on seasonal averages over the course of the month.

“This first analysis shows that the high temperatures and heat waves that affected our country in June and in the first two weeks of July were associated with an increase in mortality, especially in the central-southern regions most affected by intensity and duration of the phenomenon,” the ministry’s bulletin reads.

Italy, along with much of the rest of mainland Europe, has been battered by a series of heatwaves this summer that have fuelled forest fires and drained rivers.

The Po Valley in the north of the Italy, one of country’s most important agricultural areas, is currently experiencing its worst drought in 70 years, decimating the risotto rice farms that make up much of the area.

Average temperatures of between two and three degrees above the seasonal average were consistently recorded across the country between May and June, with spikes of up to 10 degrees in some areas.

Similar highs are forecast for August, with warnings from meteorologists that mercury levels could shoot up 10C or even 15C higher than the average for this month.

In July, factory workers across the Piedmont region went on strike after the sudden death of a worker at an automotive manufacturing plant was linked to heat exhaustion.