MILAN – Wildfires that have consumed vast swaths of southern Italy and forced the emergency evacuation of hundreds of tourists claimed the lives of two retirees Thursday as they tried to defend their property.
Authorities say most of the fires appear to be caused by arson. Italy's environment minister did not rule out Mafia involvement in the blazes in an interview in the Corriere della Sera newspaper.
The two men in their 60s died in separate incidents in the southern region of Calabria, overcome by smoke while trying to extinguish the encroaching flames, the news agency ANSA reported.
The Legambiente environmental group says some 26,000 hectares (more than 64,000 acres) of woodlands have been destroyed by flames in Italy since mid-June. Half of that has been in Sicily, where some 800 tourists were evacuated by sea Wednesday from a resort, many fleeing in just their bathing suits and flip-flops.
Elsewhere, about 20 people had to leave an island off Puglia and some 50 families were whisked away from Mount Vesuvius south of Naples, where firefighters backed by the army were working to prevent three blazes from uniting.
Italy's environment minister, Gian Luca Galletti, was quoted by Corriere as saying there were too many fires on Mount Vesuvius for them to be spontaneous.
"I don't have proof, but it does not seem to be an isolated action or chance. Three ignition points are too many to be the result of carelessness or combustion," Galletti said.
Danilo Giannese, one of the evacuees at the Calampiso resort in Vito Lo Capo, Sicily, said he and his wife went swimming as usual Wednesday morning along with many other guests before running into trouble.
"The situation was a little surreal. We went to swim like every other day. From the early morning, we saw flames and smoke, but it didn't appear to be worrying and no one said to leave," he told SKY TG24 on Thursday.
But around noon, the wind shifted and resort guests were told to immediately move their cars to safer ground. Then they were told to gather on the beach for an evacuation because the road to a nearby town was no longer safe.
"There was a lot of tension, especially among the elderly and children, many of whom were crying," he said. "Thankfully the operation was conducted in an orderly fashion."
Stella Belliotti said she and her 7-year-old daughter were evacuated wearing just their bathing suits and flip-flops, each holding pieces of cloth in their mouths against the smoke.
The vacationers were taken to a nearby town by fishing boats and dinghies.
"To see the resort surrounded by flames from the boat was terrible," Belliotti was quoted by Corriere as saying. "Now we just want to forget it."