Forest fire kills four in Sicily

Click to follow
FOUR forest rangers were killed yesterday fighting a pine-forest fire in western Sicily, 50km (30 miles) from the city of Catania.

They were victims of one of the hundreds of brush and forest fires, most of them believed to have been started deliberately, which are devastating vast areas of beautiful Italian countryside. In Sardinia, by far the worst hit, the worried authorities are talking of terrorism.

Italy holds the European record for fires, with 105,700 hectares (261,000 acres) of countryside destroyed last year, according to the World Wildlife Fund. This year's devastation threatens to be twice as bad.

Fuelled by strong winds and severe drought, terrifying walls of fire and smoke many miles long have swept across coastal scrubland, woods and tinder-dry pastures leaving huge tracts of blackened land that will often take years to recover. The Italian Riviera, Umbria and Tuscany have been badly hit, while Sardinia has suffered half of the fires, forcing Roman holidaymakers to flee in boats.

The civil defence authorities estimate that more than 80 per cent were started deliberately. Many others were the result of carelessness, such as motorists throwing cigarette ends out of cars. The WWF estimates that fewer than 1 per cent are due to natural causes.

Fire-raisers are rarely caught. The authorities suspect many of the culprits are local peasants. 'They start fires to get themselves hired as seasonal fire-beaters by the regional authorities, or as look-outs, or to get work cleaning up and re-foresting the area' says Vito Riggio, Under- Secretary for Civil Defence.

Others are thought to be shepherds or farmers hoping to extend their grazing or farming land, while others - particularly on Elba and in Sardinia - are thought to be opposed to plans for natural parks, which would mean severe curbs on hunting and fishing and controls on agriculture.

In Sardinia the fires have appeared so spitefully destructive that Emanuele Sanna, a regional councillor responsible for the environment, perceives a 'strategy designed to devastate Sardinia's heritage'. But by whom? Separatist groups? Cynical business interests or the Mafia, irked by environmental obstacles to large-scale development?

Vincenzo Parisi, Italy's chief of police, rules out links with terrorists or the Mafia. But Sardinians are not reassured. Recently fire-fighters found sophisticated explosive devices with long fuses, and police are hunting three people seen throwing petrol bombs from a car.