I See Fire. Wildfire in Como.

Now I see fire, inside the mountain
I see fire, burning the trees
And I see fire, hollowing souls
And I see fire, blood in the breeze.   Ed Sheeran.

One of my favourite Ed Sheeran songs came rushing in as I watched a blazing wild-fire gain momentum on the peaks of the densely wooded forest high above Lake Como. It was a windy night, following yet another unseasonably warm late autumn day. The dark mountains near the comunes of Veleso and Tavernerio were on fire, the lines gaining speed and the fire front broadening. The few people we saw around the village and in the local osteria in Laglio didn’t look perturbed, and as I didn’t have access to the internet or television, I had to assume that this was a controlled burn off. Or an out of control controlled burn off. If I had been at home in Australia, I would have been terrified.

Il bilancio degli incendi nel Comasco: distrutti 400 ettari di bosco E il fuoco non è ancora domato (Il video)
Photo by Andrea Butti, La Provincia di Como.

The next day we woke to the low buzzing sound of helicopters and Canadairs. The war was on. Not unlike a scene from Apocalypse Now, the planes swooped down into the lake, filled their tanks with water, then rose back into the sky in a circular aerial ballet before dropping their load on the smoking mountain. The mission went on all morning, though I did notice that all action ceased at 1pm: nothing, absolutely nothing, gets in the way of an Italian lunch! After the first day, the fire was still visible and threatening to take off once again. The helicopters and Canadairs kept up their vigilant water bombing for three more days until the area was declared safe.

Coming from a bushfire prone district in the low wooded hills, the designated Green Wedge and lungs of  Melbourne, and having been personally affected by the disastrous Black Saturday bushfire of 2009, I was keen to find out what was going on. This required those old-fashioned and timeless investigative skills- chatting  to locals, asking more questions, and buying the local newspaper in Como from a very happy dope smoking giornaliao. 

The gentle dock master down at the Urio ferry stop was concerned about the lack of rain. It was late October, only a few days before All Saint’s Day, and yet it hadn’t rained for two months. The weather had been warm with temperatures in the mid twenties. The little lakes and sources of water high up in the mountains had dried up, and at night the ‘cinghiali, caprioli, volpi, lepri e cervi scendono per bere al lago’, ( the wild boars, roe deer, foxes, hare and deer come down to drink at the lake). He looked concerned, apprehensive even, like some modern day St Francis. ‘They hide during the day,’ he said, ‘even the wolves come down to drink at night.’

By Monday, the newspaper was full of reports, with pictures of fire fighting scenes taken at the fire front, which was estimated to be around 400 hectares. The local brigade, i vigili del fuoco and the local fire fighting volunteers were praised, and along with the aerial bombardment, the fire was kept away from hilltop farms, ancient trails, and the densely populated small lakeside villages. There was some discussion about pyromaniacs and the careless cigarette butt throwing drivers. The following day, another article suggested that the blaze began as a result of a contadino, a peasant farmer, doing some cleaning up by burning off.

In later discussions with other Lombardi, it was suggested that these fires may have been deliberately lit by those wanting to buy land cheaply. Start a fire, watch your neighbour’s land burn, then snap it up for a bargain price. The pernicious Sicilian mafia are alive and well in Lombardy. This behaviour is well documented in the rural areas of Sicily but in Como?

I raised the issue of global warming and the need for more care and vigilance in summer and autumn. The locals do worry about long, hot and rainless autumns that are becoming the norm, as well as the perennial yellow smog that chokes the beautiful historic towns, villages and hamlets within a 30 kilometre radius of Milano. They are also concerned about the long-term pollution of their underground drinking water, necessitating reliance on plastic bottled drinking water in some parts, about the nuclear waste buried under a recently constructed road in Lombardy that can never be removed (construction contracts have been handed out to the mafia as local government corruption takes hold in the North) as well as a raft of other environmental issues confronting Northern Italy. But global warming? Beh, what can you do? The issues are huge.

The blaze in the Comasco hills cost around €500,000 (AU$750,000) to quell. Let’s hope this fire was an aberration, but also a warning and a message.

And a link to that song can be found here.




18 thoughts on “I See Fire. Wildfire in Como.”

  1. You have just come back to this, Francesca! Much more manageable in Europe methinks than in the wild ‘outlands’ of this Continent . . . we have been warned all spring that this will be the return of that horrible year . . . and when today’s BOM Wollongong fire repost reads ‘low< moderate threat' for me I know I can probably breathe easier for the day and the night to come . . . Global Warming: so we fight – each and every one of us counts and we never, ever let up . . . we are 'winning' over the 'equal marriage' issue . . . surely we can make that other one just a little more equable also . . .

    Liked by 2 people

    1. No, I think some Europeans have their heads in the sand. We understand the behaviour of our weather and have realistic and well broadcasted fire warnings. I think these things are just beginning in Europe and adjustments need to take place in attitude and approach.

      Liked by 3 people

        1. Yes, In many respects, I believe so, though it takes a while, after returning to these fair shores, to re-establish a healthy degree of cynicism. Remember, I’m still in ‘I love this country mode’ and am trying to resist doing a post on the theme.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. We depend on our spring for water at Casa Debbio. This year it slowed to a trickle in summer after a winter drought, a dry spring and a hot dry summer. We wanted to put in a tank earlier this year but all the locals told us the spring, which also feeds the village from another branch, has never dried up.
    I believe that if we have another dry winter it will dry up, so next year we will investigate tanks. I agree with you that many Italians have their collective heads in the sand.
    There were forest fires on the mountain beside ours this year, too close for my liking.
    Wild boar came down the mountain to dig up our little patch of green grass looking for worms and the little wild goats cleaned up my roses and geraniums. At the end of summer I don’t mind. They have to eat.
    Seasons have gone crazy. The magnolia trees had flower buds on them in early November, fooled by the warm weather. I don’t know what is normal any more.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. While so saddened to hear that this is also happening in the hills of Bagni di Lucca, it does reinforce the impression I have that the local Italian communes are not taking these changes seriously. There’s a conservatism in Italy that is quite frustrating. I hope you get that tank in. And I hope you can be a voice of change in your home of part of the year too. Thanks Debi for this comment, I appreciate it.


  3. That song is beautiful and “hollowing out souls” must be literally what you and the other people affected by those devastating fires experienced. It’s very disturbing to know that in other parts of the world they are careless of what could be coming their way and that possibly the Mafia is sufficiently alive and well to be acting in such wicked ways. Your description of the life that flourished in your kitchen, and no doubt still does, is beautiful. That is the kind of life and living that stitches together the ragged tears in souls. I’ll raise a glass to that and to you, Francesca.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Not to sound unaffected by the tragedy of these fires, but wildfires in the Mediterranean are a fact of life. I think they may be smaller and more contained than those in Australia, but they are still devastating. In September there was a huge wildfire in northern Attica and we could smell burning about 65km away in Athens. Before that the entire western part of the island of Kythera went up in smoke. I’ve seen those planes in action. It incredibly choreographed and I have nothing but admiration for the pilots. Yes, I agree, this is yet another problem exasperated by global warming. The poem is wonderful and very “gritty”. Good choice for this post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The wild fires in Greece, from my little understanding from a distance, often seem very devastating. I don;t think the folk in the Provincia di Como, right next door to Switzerland, really have the same understanding of wild fire increase, as say Australians, Greeks, or Californians. I have the impression that they are on the beginning of this learning curve and some behaviours, especially after a long dry spell, need to change.


  5. Welcome home Francesca, I think you are right about Australian understanding the dangers of fire. We live in the country and country folk don’t take much seriously but they do follow the fire restrictions to the letter. Leading up to the ban everyone is clearing their blocks of debris and burning off. The main danger here is bloody plantations, they are always going up and the shire doesn’t hesitate to allow subdivisions next door to them. I would never live close to one.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. It’s so beautiful there, so I was so glad to read the fire was put under control.
    Always sorry to hear that the mafia stills has so much power in Italy.
    Just think of all the experiences one can have when the internet goes out.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. After reading this a few days ago I had to ruminate. Reading the first paragraph I was concerned that the fires might have been alarming for you. Understandable if they had been, but as I read I could also understand how you were seeing it, through a different lens from your own traumatic experience. Then I was further shocked at the thought that someone might have set the fires in order to buy the land cheaply and that the mafia might be involved. Of course I know these things are entirely real and possible, but wouldn’t you just think there is enough suffering the world without humans practicing more ways to inflict pain on one another? Thank you for relating this, it has been very thought provoking…and Ed Sheeran is a troubadour with his words and music.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s Ok Julie. I was fine. I just couldn’t comprehend the lack of worry shown by the locals, and watching all those little houses in the hills so close….I just hope this doesn’t become an annual event for the people of Lake Como.

      Liked by 1 person

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