OPINION: Italy is burning – but many wildfires could be prevented

After her own home was threatened by wildfires this week, reporter Silvia Marchetti says more could be done to stop the inferno that ravages Italy every summer.

OPINION: Italy is burning - but many wildfires could be prevented
Scorched land following a recent blaze near the author's home. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

I live in the countryside north of Rome and it’s been burning with wildfires for the past three days.

The flames have destroyed beautiful, ancient olive groves and vineyards. Hillsides are scorched, roofs are covered in soot, and firefighters’ helicopters carrying water come and go. I open my window and I see a black wasteland. The toxic smell of smoke fills the air.

READ ALSO: Where are wildfires raging in Italy?

Every summer it’s always the same nightmare, but this year is worse. It’s a scorching hot July and many areas across the whole of Italy – rural and urban – are burning.

In the first seven months of this year there have been 346.000 wildfires, more than in the same period in 2021, according to farmers’ lobby Coldiretti.

There’s a mix of factors at play: natural causes (climate change, higher temperatures, drier land) and direct human causes such as arson – a crime which is worsened, and heightened, by Italy’s unapplied rules and fines. 

A fire and rescue helicopter works to put out a wildfire near the author’s home. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

A report by environmental group Legambiente suggests roughly 62.000 hectares of land burnt in 2020 due to arson and mafia-linked motives, such as making room for new buildings and other profit-seeking purposes, particularly in the southern regions. 

Meanwhile the civil protection agency says just two percent of Italy’s wildfires have natural causes.

The problem is pretty much the same around the country: rising temperatures, combined with illicit human acts, cause wildfires to multiply. 

READ ALSO: Italian wildfires ‘three times worse’ than average this year as heatwave continues

Farmers themselves may burn their own estates – or malicious neighbours do so to destroy their profits. Some farmers don’t maintain fields properly, they don’t cut the grass ahead of summer, then when the heat comes and it doesn’t rain, the land is all dried out and ready to light up like a match.

In December I’ve seen the owners of the estate in front of my house, which regularly catches on fire in summer, organizing picnics and olive harvests, but never once did they cut the grass or trim the trees. 

Last summer a wildfire destroyed their centuries-old olive trees. It took 11 months for the scorched black soil to turn green again, and now, exactly one year later, we’re back to square one: burnt to ashes.

Firefighters I spoke to over the weekend said they can tell natural wildfires from those caused by arson: it seems they’re able to find some kind of ‘artificial’ match that triggered the blaze, like small heaps of dry grass placed in strategic spots.

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

There are rules, backed up by fines, which require farmers to maintain their property for safety and environmental reasons, and rules that forbid building on burnt land for 15 years. But local authorities don’t follow up on checks, and rarely enforce the law, at least where I live.

Winter season should be used to prepare rural estates for the hot months, though this seldom happens. It’s no secret that burnt land is more fertile and yields more succulent olive oil, fruit and vegetables.

On Saturday a wildfire on the hill opposite my house almost reached my property. I could see the flames licking their way up the forest path leading to the garden. 

The crackling noise of burning tree wood as the fire spreads is frightening. It all happened extremely quickly; in less than 10 minutes the smoke turned to fire. 

Flames rise as farmland catches fire near the author’s home. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

I called the firefighters and by the time they got to my place, after an hour, the whole valley was black and flames were everywhere, clouds of smoke in the sky. They had to work for six hours to extinguish it. I was about to jump in the car and abandon my house, for I could see flames approaching. The lady next door became ill, and an ambulance was called – but it never arrived because the driver couldn’t find the address.

Firefighters do a great job and risk their lives every day, but could more be done to cut reaction time by pre-mapping risky areas?

These tend to be always the same, ‘critical’ ones. Each summer, at least in rural zones, it’s specific, well-known valleys, orchards and estates that burn to ashes.

Could authorities place some kind of ‘early warning detectors’ in risky spots that pick up signs of smoke before it turns into wild flames? It might be a first step to averting the spread of wildfires. 

The same type of prevention strategy could also be applied to monitoring avalanches, which are becoming more frequent and have already caused many deaths in the past month.

Authorities should map potentially dangerous mountain slopes where snow and glaciers are melting, based on temperature tracking, and ban hikers from venturing there in the first place.

I believe all of these tragedies (yes, a wildfire is a tragedy even when nobody dies) come down to human causes. When the fire ‘naturally’ starts it is due to extremely hot temperatures linked to climate change.

Given that we created this scorching inferno, we’re the only ones who can stop it – or at the very least, tame it. Though it may be indeed too late.

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How bad is Italy’s north-south ‘healthcare gap’ really?

Despite recent improvements, stark regional differences in healthcare provision persist in Italy and the problem seems to be here to stay, writes Silvia Marchetti.

How bad is Italy’s north-south ‘healthcare gap’ really?

Italians have a sad saying: ‘health is a right in the north, and a hope in the south’. 

Despite recent improvements, regional differences in healthcare standards continue to plague the country, telling a ‘tale of two Italies’ with the country divided in half, and featuring a trend of southerners travelling north for treatment.

The south-north healthcare gap of the past has of course significantly shortened. Things are very different now from the days when Turin doctor Carlo Levi wrote ‘Cristo si è fermato ad Eboli’ (Christ stopped at Eboli) in 1945, when he talked about the shock of seeing poor children in Matera, the capital of Basilicata, with flies in their eyes and infections. 

Today, Basilicata leads southern regions on healthcare performance. And there are significant differences in standards between southern regions, with Calabria and Molise lagging behind Sicily, Puglia and Campania for treatment and services.

READ ALSO: Five essential facts about Italy’s public healthcare system  

But differences remain, and the pandemic has worsened the outlook according to a recent report by the government’s CNEL agency.

Public healthcare expenditure is at a national average of 1,838 euros per person per year. But the figure is much higher in northern regions than in the south: for example, it’s 2,255 euros in Bolzano versus 1,725 euros in Calabria. 

This translates into lower investments in healthcare in the south, ranging from research in medicines and therapies to top doctors and avant-garde treatments. 

The Policlinico A. Gemelli Hospital in Rome. Italy’s capital is home to several highly-rated hospitals and clinics, but some residents still travel north in search of better or faster treatment. (Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP)

Waiting lists in the public healthcare system for checks and surgeries are longer in the south than in the north, where all the best doctors tend to be. I’ve met many southern doctors who, after studying abroad, ditched their native regions for Rome or Milan where most of the top-rated clinics and hospitals are located.

Lombardy, Piedmont and Emilia Romagna have always shone when compared to Sicily and Calabria. And even Rome, despite being the capital, lags behind Milan.

However there have been a few improvements in southern standards lately, and the situation varies depending on the type of treatment.

According to the 2021 public hospitals performance report (PNE), even though the north is showing better results in terms of treatments for cancer and orthopaedics, the poorer southern regions are raising standards in some areas.

For instance, among the top 10 facilities with higher proportions of primary angioplasty guaranteed within 90 minutes, a good index of appropriateness and timeliness, seven are based in the south.

READ ALSO: Who can register for national healthcare in Italy?

Still, the gap has led to a type of ‘health tourism’ within Italy. There are no statistics, but I’ve met many southern people who have had to fly to the north for particular treatments, access to top doctors and cutting-edge surgeries, for example for knee and hip replacements. 

They rented apartments or stayed at hotels for weeks after their surgery to undergo rehab and physiotherapy, at considerable extra expense. 

I’ve met others who had to fly from Salerno and Puglia to Millan and Bologna for hip, shoulder and knee joint reconstruction or replacement, with all the hassle of the journey in poor health and the extra transport and accommodation costs it entails. 

It was striking to find that many Romans are among those who regularly travel to Milan for heart and orthopaedic checks and surgeries. Rome does have a few top-rated clinics, but apparently not as many as Milan.

Meanwhile many doctors from Milan, Padua and Bologna come ‘fishing’ for desperate patients in Rome and Naples who have failed to find a surgeon willing to operate on them due to their complex conditions. 

READ ALSO: The parts of Italy with the best (and worst) quality of life in 2022

This healthcare gap in my view will never completely disappear, despite the incoming European funds through the pandemic recovery plan aimed at shortening it.

It will be further reduced in time, but not in the near future, particularly if all the good doctors continue to flee north for higher salaries, prestige and a more promising career.