Wildfires have become an increasingly common occurrence in Europe, with both intentional and unintentional human activities being the primary causes. While controlled fires can be beneficial to ecosystems, large-scale wildfires often lead to severe economic damage and pose significant threats to human lives.
Italy, with its Mediterranean climate, is particularly susceptible to wildfires, and the forests in the country play a crucial role in maintaining the environment and supporting the economy. However, these forests have suffered significant damage due to fires over the past few decades.
In this context, the Leverhulme Centre for Wildfires, Environment and Society, and the Centre of Environmental Policy of Imperial College London and the Department of Agricultural, Food, and Forestry Sciences of the University of Palermo organised a stakeholder consultation workshop in the Municipality of Monreale in Sicily to gain insights into the complex interactions between humans, landscapes, and fires in the region.
The Situation in Italy and Sicily
Italy’s hot and dry summers, influenced by the Mediterranean climate, create favourable conditions for wildfires. According to reports from Legambiente, a non-profit organization, a staggering 87% of wildfires in Italy in 2021 occurred in just three regions: Sicily, Sardinia, and Calabria.
Sicily experienced the highest number of fires, with extensive areas devastated by flames. These figures highlight the alarming fact that up to 97% of vegetation fires in Italy are caused by human hands.
Sicily’s arid summers and extensive forested and inhabited areas make it highly susceptible to wildfires. These fires not only damage infrastructure and public and private structures but also harm air and water quality, biodiversity, soil health, and the overall appearance of the landscape.
The socio-economic and demographic dynamics in Sicily, including the abandonment and degradation of agricultural lands due to migration, have further exacerbated the wildfire hazards. The limited presence of specialized personnel and preventive control measures in the region has created a challenging situation for combating vegetation fires effectively.
The Stakeholder Consultation Workshop
Understanding the complex dynamics behind wildfire occurrences and their impacts requires a comprehensive approach that considers environmental and socio-economic factors at the local level. Human activities play a significant role in shaping fire regimes, but unravelling the interactions between landscapes, people, and fires is a complex task.
The consultation workshop aimed to provide a platform for various groups directly or indirectly related to fire-related issues to exchange ideas, perspectives, and priorities related to wildfires in the Monreale area.
The participants included representatives from organizations such as the Sicilian Regional Forestry Corps, Department of Rural and Territorial Development of the Sicilian Region, Palermo Provincial Fire Brigade Command, NGOs and civil society and many others.
Participants engaged in semi-structured activities, such as creating rich pictures, which served as visual representations of the complex problem context. This activity helped surface the complexities, potential conflicts, and tensions associated with wildfires in the area.
Another activity involved constructing a problem tree, which aimed to identify causes-effects links of the current situation of wildfires. By tracing back the causes of the wildfire problem and analysing the relationships between various factors, the participants gained insights into the underlying issues and their interconnectedness.
Picture 1 and 2: Rich pictures from the two working groups
The workshop activities aimed to enhance the understanding of the incentives, interests, and behaviours of diverse stakeholders. Many areas of contention were revealed during the conversations, and issues that lacked clarity between stakeholder groups.
One area of contention centred around the role and effectiveness of suppression efforts by institutional bodies during emergency situations. Environmentalist parties expressed general distrust of governing institutions and dissatisfaction with the response and perceived structural incapacity of these bodies to effectively address the ever-changing challenges of wildfire under the new and worsening climatic conditions.
Over the years, these entities have been operating in isolated silos, limiting effective communication and transparency among these entities, and contributing to the emergence of conflicting points. The limitations of this fragmented system have become apparent, emphasizing the necessity for greater integration and collaboration among the different parties involved.
Fostering better communication, coordination, and cooperation among stakeholders is crucial. By breaking down existing barriers and establishing robust channels of interaction, these entities can work together more effectively to address the challenges posed by wildfires and to address the causes behind recurring burnt areas.
Building a collaborative framework that encourages shared decision-making and mutual understanding will lead to more comprehensive and sustainable fire management practices.
Erika Piroli is a PhD student based in the Centre of Environmental Policy at Imperial College London. Her research is on ‘Policy and Fires – do politicians’ incentives and priorities affect wildfires occurrence?’