Now that the cold weather has set in, I found myself recently thinking about my trip to Sicily this past summer. We ventured there in late June/early July when the summer heat really starts to kick in. Sicily had been experiencing hotter than average temps and on most days while we were there, the thermometer reached upwards of 100 degrees.
The excessive heat and high winds coming off the sea were blamed for the daily brush, grass and forest fires that were reported on the news each night. We saw fires spring up along the highway, up in the mountains and right in the backyard of the agriturismo we were staying in! News about wildfires igniting in all parts of the country, including areas around Rome, were becoming the topic of conversation at the local cafe.
We spoke to a few of the people who were staying at the small hotel we were at, including the owners. I found their responses to the wildfire safety question fascinating. Without any prompting, the first thing they told me was, living in this area, high up in the hills with only narrow, winding roads to travel on and being miles from any major (or minor, for that matter) fire station, it was their responsibility to take care of their property since it was common knowledge that the fire service wouldn’t be able to come to them and help put the fire out.
It turns out, the townspeople have for years worked together to clear brush and dead debris around their homes and land. Nestled among olive groves and chestnut trees, it has never been an easy job. But folks told me a rake, some pruning shears and other inexpensive tools were enough to help them do the job. And sure enough, as I looked out over the mountains, I could see large patches of grass mowed and trimmed and trees limbed. These folks were actually working off of Firewise principles without even knowing it!
The hotel owner also told me something interesting. When building, they are required by law to put a fire break around the entire perimeter of the property. It’s our responsibility to save the hotel in case of brush fire, she told me, plus there’s no money in the budget for the state to provide emergency help, and more importantly, she said, no one would be able to get a truck up these roads.
And it works. The last day of our trip, I was in the room packing when I heard a very loud and eerily crackling noise. I went out onto the balcony and saw a wildfire on the mountain across the street from us. I noted how a large plot of the cleared land and narrow "fire breaks across the slope" kept the fire in one area. An hour later, a lone helicopter dumped water on the fire after making several rounds to and from the sea a half mile away. A couple hours later, the fire had completely been extinguished. I was impressed.
So, as we move into the new year and begin to think about the mitigation work we’ll continue to do around our own properties and across our communities, I can’t help but take a cue from the Sicilian people who, with not much money in their pockets, created their own Firewise sites in their Italian WUI. Even the simplest of steps I realized, can make a huge difference in keeping homes and property from being destroyed by wildfire.For more information on how you can create Firewise communities in your area, check out our website and download the Firewise toolkit, which provides simple checklists and tips you can use every day. Have a safe and happy holiday season!