Every summer, I’m accustomed to idly observing helicopters roaring back and forth from the river Tiber or nearby Lake Bracciano carrying big buckets of water to drop on the regular wild fires. Everything has always remained at a comfortable distance until the day the valley below my house caught light and my village of Capena and nearby Morlupo hit the national news.
On 5 August 2017, I was sitting at my desk translating. Out of the corner of my eye I could see flecks that I first imagined to be dead leaves floating past the window. Then came a smell of burning and the terrifying crackle of burning trees and I realised the flecks were cinders and we were actually just a few hundred metres downwind of a fast-approaching wall of smoke and flame.
The Polizia Municipali raced round the houses blowing whistles and got us all into the open air where things were much worse than they seemed from inside the houses: we could hardly breathe or see out of our stinging eyes. Then followed two days of mayhem. Volunteer firemen and the Protezione Civile fought to stop the fire attacking the buildings.
In the air, it was like a scene from Apocalypse Now as helicopters wheeled and dipped perilously close to burning trees to drop their loads of water – often against the backdrop of a livid setting sun. One helicopter barely saved itself from crashing into the valley bottom after snagging a powerline (plunging our half of the village into darkness for half a day).
When the helicopters couldn’t cope, the mighty yellow Canadair amphibian plane came roaring in to save the day.
The pilots were amazing and so were the firefighters, who could sometimes be seen staggering off crying tears of sheer exhaustion after hours toiling in heavy uniforms at 40°C. Our new mayor seemed to be everywhere too, stripped to the waist with hoses and water buckets for the ultimate photo op.
Now the clear-up is underway, with chainsaws buzzing in the valley. And a few culprits are starting to emerge. Not migrants, as had been unjustly claimed, but random pyromaniacs, farmers ‘clearing’ their fields, developers wanting to free up new building land, crooked firefighters seeking more overtime pay and, very occasionally, the private companies who have been earning millions since the state-run Corpo Forestale was disbanded last year. Putting fires out can be big business in Italy.