Climate change turned this Italian car mechanic into a firefighter

by Umberto Bacchi | @UmbertoBacchi | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 23 August 2021 13:56 GMT

Daniele Scala, a volunteer firemen douses water on a fire near Cagliari, Italy, July 10, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Handout bu Nucleo Operativo Soccorsi Quartu Sant’ Elena

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As forest fires ravage Italy amid record temperatures, a firefighter from Sardinia tells of how his work changed over the past decade

This is part of a series of stories examining how the lives of firefighters around the world are being impacted by climate change.

By Umberto Bacchi

Aug 23 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A volunteer firefighter for more than a decade, Daniele Scala has seen thousands of blazes - but none quite like the one that engulfed the Italian island of Sardinia in July.

200 square kilometres of forest, villages and ancient olive groves were devastated by one of the biggest wildfires in decades that displaced over a thousand people.

"It burned everything. We were lucky there were no victims," he said.

A 44-year-old car mechanic, Scala was one of thousands of firefighters called on to help battle the blaze.

.jpg Daniele Scala and other volunteer firemen respond to a wildfire near Quartu Sant’Elena, Italy, August 4, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Handout bu Nucleo Operativo Soccorsi Quartu Sant’ Elena

He couldn't believe what he saw: in a fire-encircled mountain village, gardens and flowerbeds burst into flames. Nearby, he saw wild boar charge out of a forest before dying in a river, their corpses appearing "oven-cooked".

Hot winds have stoked thousands of fires across Italy with firefighters saying in early August they had carried out more than 46,000 operations since mid-June, up 75% on the same period last year.

A monitoring station in Sicily reported temperatures of 48.8 Celsius (119.84°F) on Aug. 11, believed to be the highest in European history.

Due to a lack of government funding, volunteers like Scala are increasingly being relied upon to bolster firefighting forces.

Daniele Scala, a volunteer firefighter, poses with a dog rescued from a fire near Cagliari, Italy, July 15, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Handout bu Nucleo Operativo Soccorsi Quartu Sant’ Elena

Longer and more lethal wildfire seasons have turned what was once a summer activity for Scala into increasingly perilous and exhausting unpaid work.

"We used to go to some places with just a pick-up truck and 400 litres of water to douse a brushfire, now we have to take a fire engine," he said.

A native of the Sardinian city of Cagliari, Scala dreamt of becoming a fire-fighter as a child.

He joined a volunteer firefighting corps in 2010 after seeing a local forest devoured by flames.

"That sight touched me, as I love walking in the woods when all your problems disappear for a short while," he said.

Volunteer firemen, including 44-year-old Daniele Scala, walk towards a forest fire near Oristano, Italy, July 25, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Handout bu Nucleo Operativo Soccorsi Quartu Sant’ Elena

It's not just global warming that is creating hotter and dryer conditions fires can thrive in.

As Sardinia's rural residents relocate to cities in search of work, dry shrubs spread across abandoned fields, providing more fuels for fires.

The end of the fire season, he says, is now often followed by flash floods.

"It's a lethal mix, as by burning trees and their roots fires leave behind dry, hardened soil that is more unstable and prone to mudslides," he said.

"We basically used to do nothing from the end of one summer to the start of the next, while now there is no year that goes by without us having to work through winter and spring."

Despite the risks, Scala continues to organise work at his repair shop in order to be available for firefighting everyday throughout the summer.

"It takes a lot of sweat but at the end of the summer you can look back and say 'at least we saved this pine grove or this wood. Our work paid off'," he said.

(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Tom Finn. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org