About 1,000 residents and tourists have been evacuated from areas of western Sardinia that were ravaged by wildfires over the weekend, with forests, pastures and villages on the Italian island engulfed in flames.
“It is a disaster without precedent,” said the region’s governor, Christian Solinas, invoking a state of emergency on Sunday.
No deaths or injuries have been reported, the Italian authorities said. But the fires were still raging on Monday, when four firefighting planes from France and Greece joined the Italian firefighters’ air fleet to help control the blaze.
Since early Saturday, when the wildfires started near a forest by the village of Bonacardo, at least 50,000 acres of land have gone up in flames. Hundreds of sheep, goats, cows and pigs died after being trapped in barns at farms in the fires’ path, despite emergency workers’ efforts to save them.
On Sunday night, Prime Minister Mario Draghi of Italy expressed his “full solidarity” with the people affected by the fires and offered support for firefighters working around the clock.
Images recorded by Italian firefighters showed a thick layer of smoke engulfing residential buildings, warehouses and barns, and flames burning high just behind beach-side villas in the town of Porto Alabe, a popular tourist site, over 25 miles north of where the fires originated.
Flames ran through hectares of cork and holm oak forests that are native to the region. A thousand-year old olive tree that was the symbol of the hilltop village of Cuglieri was destroyed by the fire.
“This morning, the trunk was still burning,” Maria Giovanna Campus, a retired local archaeologist wrote on Facebook last Sunday, posting the images of the dead tree, its trunk charred by the fire and its branches hanging to the ground.
“We had proudly signaled its presence to tourists, but we ended up neglecting it and leaving it to the flames.” she said, adding “cleaning up the area around it would have been enough to protect it and preserve it.”
The cause of the fires was not yet clear.
But experts said that to prevent wildfires, forests and pastures needed to be kept clean and buffer zones created. In the affected areas of Sardinia and elsewhere in Italy, abandoned lands are often not properly maintained, which can help the fire spread, they said.
July 26, 2021, 9:54 a.m. ET
Wildfires are common in Sardinia’s dry Mediterranean environment in the summer, especially when hot southwestern winds blow on days where temperatures reach 104 degrees Fahrenheit, as has been the case in the past few days.
“These are extraordinary fires for the magnitude, but also ordinary for the season and the speed, unfortunately,” said Gianfilippo Micillo, head of the Italian firefighters’ wildfires coordination department. “Summer blazes in Sardinia with so much dry vegetation, the strong winds and the high temperatures take place every year. These fires create their own microclimate and propagate very fast.”
Mr. Micillo said Italy was experiencing an increase in wildfires this year, as happens every four or five years, when low bushes and scrub grow enough in deserted areas to become fuel for a spark ignited accidentally, or intentionally, by human activity.
Italy has registered almost 13,000 more wildfires than last year, mostly in the southern regions of Apulia, Calabria and Sicily, firefighters said.
Mr. Micillo also said that until 10 years ago, blazes used to take place in the Alpine regions in the winter and in central and southern Italy over the summer. Now, wildfires have extended in time and area, as temperatures remain higher through October and the vegetation dries out.
“And these new phenomena are connected to climate change,” Mr. Micillo said, “as Italy is, no doubt, becoming hotter.”
Fires linked to climate change have devastated parts of the western United States and Canada this summer, as extreme heat and drought have dried out vegetation.