Weather, vegetation, neglect of the territory: the 3 factors behind the fires (not only in Italy)

by Emanuele Isonio – “20 thousand hectares, according to the most optimistic forecasts. It means that 200 million square meters of land have been completely destroyed. It will take several decades to restore the condition of the soil and its fertility, restore the ecosystem balance and the complexity of the Mediterranean scrub. The fire of these hours has shown, once again, how too many surfaces have been abandoned by the owners, who do not find adequate remuneration to take care of the properties. Instead, to fight the fires, we must rediscover the care of the territory “.

The analysis, halfway between the complaint and the proposal for the future, is contained in a note from the CONAF (National Council of Agronomists and Foresters), issued following the dramatic images of the fires that devastated the Sardinian province of Oristano. Only the latest in a series of episodes showing a worrying increase, both in Italy and, more generally, in the Mediterranean basin.

An area four times the size of Rome is destroyed every year

The numbers had already been collected 12 months ago by a report carried out by Greenpeace together with Sisef, the Italian Society of Silviculture and Forest Ecology: between 2000 and 2017, in the Mediterranean basin, a territory as large as three times was affected by fires. and a half the entire surface of Sardinia: 8.5 million hectares. An average of 480,000 hectares – almost four times the area of ​​Rome – burned every year. Economic losses amount to 54 billion euros.

Only in Italy, in the 71 days between mid-June and the end of August 2020, Coldiretti had counted 500 fires between Emilia Romagna, Umbria, Lazio, Campania, Puglia, Basilicata, Calabria, Sicily and Sardinia.

Overcoming the emergency intervention

Yet, year after year, the news reports fires without at the same time recording any change of approach. Beyond the emergency, nothing. With all due respect to the long-term effects that the phenomenon produces in terms of damage to the soil and contamination of water resources. “As forestry doctors – observes Corrado Fenu, CONAF councilor – we see that by far the greatest effort is left to intervention. Few things have been done to prevent: those who look to the future, on the other hand, must understand that it is necessary to rebalance the commitment, working a lot on prevention and less on emergency intervention that leaves after decades afterwards ”. Also bearing in mind another fact: in Europe, 2% of fires are responsible for 80% of burnt areas. Large forest fires characterized by their remarkable speed and propagation capacity.

Behind this phenomenon, there are at least three factors to consider: “meteorology, vegetation and vulnerability of the territory” underlines Giorgio Vacchiano, researcher in Forestry Sciences at the University of Milan. All areas in which the possibilities for intervention are enormous.

In Italy, the temperature increases twice the average

On meteorology, the link with fires is quite intuitive even for the layman. It’s hotter, the risk of fires is greater. Not only: “the earth – explains Vacchiano – is experiencing a level of carbon dioxide that has not been the case for at least 3 million years. This is accelerating man-made climate change ”. Moreover, in Italy the temperature increase is double the global average. “The African anticyclone – continues Vacchiano – has replaced that of the Azores throughout the peninsula and our islands. And the jet stream slows down, causing dry and rainy systems to stay on the same territory for longer, as we saw last month in Canada and Germany ”. The consequence? More frequent, intense, prolonged heat waves and droughts. “Vegetation loses moisture, dries up and burns more easily and with more intense flames, which also consume the soil”.

The more organic material on the ground, the more fuel available
Speaking of vegetation, it too has a role that should not be underestimated. “It’s not a difficult equation” comments Vacchiano. “More organic material equals more fuel available. And it is above all the dead vegetation that acts as gasoline, as well as all that lacking a water content sufficient to buffer the heat necessary to trigger the combustion ”. Here the analysis of the professor at the University of Milan coincides with what many trade associations have been affirming for some time, as well as the environmentalist acronyms. “Reforestation never thinned out, woods that accumulate litter and dead branches, trees affected by drought are the recipe for large-scale fires, in which the fire soon exceeds the intensity thresholds that allow the firefighters to work safely. Here, the challenge is to manage the territory in such a way as to reduce risks, without losing the potential for mitigating climate change and absorbing carbon ”.

Similarly, already following the many 2020 fires, Coldiretti remembered how “In the majority of Italian woods there is no longer the presence of a farmer who can manage them in a country like Italy where more than 1/3 of the national surface is covered by woods for a total of 10.9 million hectares. Proper maintenance helps keep the forest clean and prevents the rapid spread of flames in the event of fires. To defend the Italian forest, the conditions must be created – notes Coldiretti – so that the removal from the countryside is opposed and those functions of surveillance, maintenance and management of the territory carried out by agricultural entrepreneurs are enhanced “.

Forest cover – Comparison between the main European countries and the EU media. SOURCE: Symbola-Coldiretti-Bonifiche Ferraresi Foundation. “Woods and forests in the Next Generation Eu” December 2020.
Over the years, the percentage of forest fires has increased

In fact, over the years the fires have become more and more “forest”. “The annual percentage of burnt area in wooded areas out of the total area covered by fires in all types of vegetation (forest, pasture, agricultural areas) has increased linearly from the late 1970s to 2018” he explains in the Greenpeace report- SISEF, Davide Ascoli, researcher in Forestry planning and silviculture at the University of Turin. “This indicator – Ascoli continues – reached its highest value in the 2017 fire season, where 70% of the surface covered by fires involved forest areas. This is an important change in the fire regime, the result of territorial and socio-economic processes that have favored the expansion of forests in pasture and agricultural areas, with important consequences on the behavior of the fire and the ability of regional fire-fighting systems to govern the phenomenon. “.

Extent of forest fires in Italy. 1970-2018. SOURCE: ISPRA -SNPA.

Reflections that open the chapter of the vulnerability of our territory. “The theme is made even more current – observes Vacchiano – from climate change that exposes areas that until recently could have been considered safe to natural hazards. As with floods, places to build a house or campground can mean the difference between life and death. And where safety is a priority, increased danger forces us to take more drastic measures, such as more intense control of the vegetation around homes, towns and infrastructure. Those who manage the territory have the choice whether to consider them a cost or an investment “ concludes the teacher.

Source: Il Blog di Beppe Grillo by

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