‘It’s a Miracle That We Are Still Alive’: Inside Sardinia’s Terrifying Firestorm

‘It’s a Miracle That We Are Still Alive’: Inside Sardinia’s Terrifying Firestorm
Dead sheep are on a road near the centre of the town of Cuglieri on July 26, 2021. (Photo: Valentina Sinis/AFP, Getty Images)

What had been a rich Mediterranean landscape of maquis, ancient olive trees, and ruby vineyards is now a charred skeletal tangle clinging to hills above the pristine Sardinian sea.

The road to the village of Cuglieri, in the western province of Oristano, is lined with scorched trees and fields. Fires of unprecedented ferocity have destroyed at least 49,000 acres of forest, an area as big as 28,000 soccer fields. Thousands of wild and domestic animals have perished, and 1,500 people are displaced.

Canadair firefighting planes taking water to extinguish the last outbreaks of fire have been flying continuously for four days in the skies above Montiferru, a 46-square-mile (120-square-kilometre) mountain area scattered with historic villages renowned for their olive oil. The Italian Forest Police, the Red Cross, and ambulances come and go.

The world has seen a rash of wildfires in recent years from the western U.S. to Siberia to Australia as the climate crisis worsens. The conditions that let those fires spread — hot and dry weather coupled with gusty winds — came for Sardinia, the second-biggest island in the Mediterranean. In a region strongly dependent on tourism and agriculture, the fires are a devastating blow and reminder nowhere is safe from the climate crisis.

“It’s not quite over yet,” a member of the Civil Protection Force who asked to remain anonymous said.

Not far from beaches normally filled with summer tourists, Cuglieri is one of the worst-hit villages, together with Bonarcado and Santu Lussurgiu. NASA satellite pictures show fires dotting the region. The smoke-laden air is difficult to breathe for the 2,600 inhabitants walking in the ashes. Even the monumental olive tree Sa Tanca Manna, a 1,100-year-old symbol of the area with its giant trunk, has been reduced to smouldering remains.

“Cuglieri doesn’t exist anymore,” said Gianni, a civil servant in the village who gave only his first name. He recounted saving his house by a whisker using the water from his children’s paddling pool. “My kids were screaming and crying, the fire came up to our doorstep, and next to us there’s a petrol station. We saved the houses but what is there left? The village lives from its olives and vineyards. It’s all gone.”

Laura Cocco, the 26-year-old manager of Peddio, a third-generation local olive oil company, said she saw the fire coming from the hills.

“It was terrifying because we were completely surrounded on all sides and it was impossible to leave the village. We thought everything would be destroyed and the firemen were too busy to come here, so our priority was to save the business. We put a water tank on the tractor and did our best,” she said while standing next to the skeleton of a blackened olive tree near the recently refurbished olive press. “We still have to estimate damages, but 40% of our centuries-old olive trees are gone. We managed to save the ones near the sea, others haven’t been as lucky.”

It will take weeks if not months to estimate the losses, but the fire was unlike any that have hit the island.

“Everybody has lost everything here. There have been other fires in the past, like the one in 1983 and 1994 but nothing of this scale,” recalled Carmela, Laura’s mother. “It’s a miracle that we are still alive.”

Climate change has had a striking impact on Sardinia, with higher temperatures in the summer and increased rainfall in winter, which killed three people in the village of Bitti only a few months ago. With an economy highly reliant on tourism and agriculture, it is increasingly clear that the climate crisis has become an economic issue as well as an environmental one.

According to 2019 data from the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS), Italy in 2018 and 2019 experienced the hottest years for six decades, with a 2.8-degree-Fahrenheit (1.56-degree-Celsius) temperature rise compared to the 1961 to 1990 average. The increase was particularly evident in the summer months. The EFFIS report shows that rainfall has also increased by 12%. But much of that rain is coming from more extreme events like the deadly one this winter. That means frequent drought has left regions like Sardinia with a consecutive 100 days without rain in recent years, only to be followed by major floods.

The remains of a 1,100-year-old olive tree near Cuglieri. (Photo: Valeria Murgia) The remains of a 1,100-year-old olive tree near Cuglieri. (Photo: Valeria Murgia)

But these clear signs of climate change have not been accompanied by increased efforts to prepare for emergencies. In what appears to be a common trend across Europe and indeed the world, politicians have been shocked by the magnitude of damage caused by heat, fires and floods that have become increasingly common. Few policymakers seem to have been really prepared to grapple with what it will take to address the issues on display.

“We need to focus on prevention,” said Carmela Cocco. “We had fires in the past, but never of this scale, not even the biggest I remember. If high temperatures fuel fires of this scale, we need to make sure that forests and plots are perfectly clean and that there are fire breaker barriers in the forests.”

Others wonder why there wasn’t a prevention monitoring mechanism in place, nor enough infrastructure, given that temperatures had surpassed 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius), combined with hot, sustained winds for days.

While one of the 20 fires might have been triggered by a car, investigators are looking for evidence that some may have been started by arsonists. People are demanding tougher accountability and higher penalties. But the extraordinarily dry conditions and unusually hot days are exacerbating factors that mean unintentional sparks can lead to out-of-control blazes.

The president of the region, Christian Solinas, said the fires were “unprecedented” and declared a state of emergency. Greece and France supported the Italian island by sending more planes to help get the fires under control. Similar scenes have played out in the American West, with Australia recently sending a plane as part of a resources-sharing agreement. The fires around the world show how those resources will be stretched ever more thin as the planet heats up and fires grow more intense and destructive. (Indeed, the U.S. Forest Service chief warned of a “national wildfire crisis” earlier this month as supplies and firefighters dwindle.)

Though the fires may soon be extinguished, it will take decades to begin to replace the lost trees and fauna, while the loss of centuries-old trees is irreversible. Animals that survived have no grass left to feed on, and so Peddio’s parking lot is quickly filling with villagers offering help and bringing hay for the sheep and cows. “Look there’s someone more coming,” said Carmela. “They come even with one hay bale to show solidarity. It’s been incredible.”

People are still sceptical about the chances of receiving official aid to resume their lives and businesses. “Assistance? Look it’s all there,” said Mario, a 32-year-old shepherd. “It’s poor people like us who help us,” he adds. One of his dogs is still missing.

Sara Perria is an Anglo-Italian journalist now based between London and Italy. She was previously based in Southeast Asia. Her work has appeared in HuffPost, Financial Times, the Guardian, and the Independent, reporting from Myanmar, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Europe. You can find her on Twitter @Sara_Perria.