The first thing you notice is the smell. After a controlled fire – hearth, camp, pyre – the air smells dry, because firewood is dry. But wildfires burn living flora. Walking over land razed by wildfires you breathe resinous air, the fumes of combusted sap.
During this summer’s record-breaking heatwave around the Mediterranean, wildfires broke out in Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Kabylia, Provence, Turkey, Sicily and across southern Italy. In August I went to Sardinia, where the fires had burned thousands of hectares of land and displaced hundreds of people. According to Sardinian apiculturists, millions of bees were killed.
At Cuglieri, on the west side of the island, the fires had completely encircled the town. The residents said it was terrifying to watch the surrounding hills burn. At one point the wind whipped up the flames in the north-east and carried a ball of fire into a two-storey house in the middle of the town. Fortunately the blaze was contained.
A mile outside Cuglieri there was a thousand-year-old olive tree. Its trunk measured perhaps five metres across at the thickest part. When I saw it the tree was a blackened husk. A couple of the longer branches that grew out horizontally had survived but were severed from the trunk, of which almost nothing remained. Conservationists are trying to save the millenario by irrigating the roots.
On the road to Sennariolo the fires had cleared a layer of trees and brush and left behind patches of melted black cacti that brought to mind Goya’s Grande hazaña con muertos.Fires are capricious; razed forests stand next to intact fields inexplicably spared. I drove south past pockmarked hills that looked as though they had a rare wasting condition. A couple of weeks earlier they would have resembled thousands of giant torches. A few helicopters circled the woods, keeping watch for any resurgence.
What used to be grass has become a black carpet crackling underfoot. At a small farm I accidentally stepped on a sheep’s skull. It collapsed into dust without any resistance, as though made of burned paper. Four or five others lay nearby along with a torso of twisted ribs that looked like a prop in a satanic ritual. The farm itself was gutted. Part of the house had collapsed.
In many of the affected places wildfires are not new or rare. But global heating means they are becoming more frequent and more ferocious. It has been a couple of decades since Sardinia experienced anything like the fires that came this year. It will take that long for the land to recover, where it can. As extreme weather events increase, there’s a strong chance the fires will return first.