Forest fires Italy
Forest fires in numbers
In Italy, forests are very important for landscape, biodiversity, the balance of the environment and for the economy. They occupy about 10 million ha (30% of the national area). In the past 20 years 1,100,000 ha of forest have been burnt in Italy. Every year an average of 11,000 fires occur, destroying more than 50,000 ha of wood each year (1).
Today, as a result of a strong awareness-raising campaign and thanks to improved organization of the regional and national fire prevention system, the risk, though still high, has decreased. The surface burnt decreased from 190,640 ha in 1985 to 76,427 in 2001. Half of the total of about 10,000 fires every year occurs during July and August. During the hot year of 2003, regions affected by the highest numbers of fires were Calabria and Campania in the south-west of Italy, and when referring to the largest surfaces affected by the fires the most affected regions were in Sicily and Sardinia (1,2). A study on the Mediterranean region on fire trends in Portugal, Spain, southern France, Italy, and Greece in the period 1985-2011 revealed a general decreasing trend of the total annual burned area in all countries, with the exception of Portugal (10).
So far, forest fires do not constitute a significant hazard in the central and northern parts of the Alps, while on the southern side they are more common even if the fire number and the burned area are low compared to the neighbouring Mediterranean area, where the climate is more in favour of the development of frequent and large wildfires. Due to their high potential impact in terms of human lives, commodities and natural heritage, however, the Alpine forest fires require a relatively large amount of resources for fire-fighting and prevention: the mountainous environment makes fire fighting very difficult, and a rapid intervention is required because the fires readily endanger human activities and infrastructures. Furthermore, secondary damages via other consecutive natural hazards, such as an enhancement of debris flows, erosion and avalanche danger, may occur, too (8).
The impact of climate change on the fire potential in the Alps in the past and in future scenarios has been evaluated from a multimodel approach (simulations from 7 Regional Climate Models), a detailed Regional Climate Model for the Alps area (COSMO), and data on daily temperature and precipitation observations during 1961–2010. The scenario period is 2031–2050; the RCM projections are based on the SRES scenario A1B. These model confirm previous results (9) that in recent decades the strongest increase of forest fire danger has been observed in the Southern Alps, while north of the Alps no clear trend was observed (8).
Forest fire danger, length of the fire season, and fire frequency and severity are very likely to increase in the Mediterranean (3), and will lead to increased dominance of shrubs over trees (4).
Dry weather and damaged ecosystem with accumulation of dead biomass increase the risk of forest fires and therefore increased climate variability will augment the risk of forest fires (2). In addition, forest fires are expected to encourage the spread of invasive species which in turn, have been shown to fuel more frequent and more intense forest fires (5).
An indication of the forest fire risk under the future climate scenarios has been calculated (5). Under both A2 and B2 scenarios, fire risk is shown to increase nearly everywhere in the Mediterranean region, especially in inland locations. The southern Mediterranean is at risk of forest fire all year round. In the Iberian Peninsula, northern Italy and over the Balkans, the period of extreme fire risk lengthens substantially. The only region that shows little change in fire risk is in the southeastern Mediterranean.
Projections of forest fire risk in 2030-2060 compared with 1961-1990 suggest that (5):
- the increase is higher during the summer, with maximum increase in August in the North Mediterranean inland;
- Balkans, Maghreb, North Adriatic, Central Spain, and Turkey are the most affected regions;
- the south of France is as strongly affected as Spain, but only in August and September;
- the islands of Crete, Sardinia, Sicily (southernmost Italy too), Peloponnese, and Cyprus see no increase or decrease. Cyprus may even see a small decrease every month;
- there will be 2 to 6 additional weeks of fire risk everywhere, except for the south of Italy and Cyprus. The maximum increase is again inland (Spain, Maghreb, Balkans, North Italy, and Central Turkey), where at least an additional month with risk of fire is expected. A significant proportion of this increase in fire risk is actually extreme fire risk;
- the south of France, Crete, and the coastal area of the rest of Mediterranean Region also show a significant increase in the number of days with fire risk (1-4 weeks), but not in the number of extreme fire risk.
Contrary to the pattern expected in boreal and temperate forests, both the frequency and intensity of fires in subtropical forests will eventually decrease after an initial phase of increase once rainfall has decreased so much that less grass fuel is available to support fires (6).
Major funding has also been put into increasing the capacity to combat forest fires in Europe. For example, Italy has Europe’s largest fleet of aircraft and helicopters, and has on several occasions loaned out its planes to France and Spain. The high level of preparedness requires significant resources, but has shown good results: the year 2000 saw 6,600 fires destroy 58,000 hectares of forest, while almost the same number of fires in 2006 only destroyed 16,000 hectares. Protezione Civile considers itself to have a successful organisation with a high level of preparedness and great capacity to handle the effects of climate change (2).
Adaptation options to forest fire risk should aim to decrease the vulnerability, where a change in tree species from conifers to broadleaves had most effect (7).
The references below are cited in full in a separate map 'References'. Please click here if you are looking for the full references for Italy.
- WHO (2007)
- Ministry for the Environment, Land and Sea of Italy (2007)
- Santos et al. (2002); Pausas (2004); Moreno (2005); Pereira et al. (2005); Moriondo et al. (2006), all in: Alcamo et al. (2007)
- Mouillot et al. (2002), in: Alcamo et al. (2007)
- Giannakopoulos et al. (2005)
- Fischlin (ed.) (2009)
- Schelhaas et al. (2010)
- Cane et al. (2013)
- Wastl et al. (2012), in: Cane et al. (2013)
- Turco et al. (2016), in: Silva et al. (2019)