“I hear the Canadairs before I see them. When I do, I know there’s a wildfire somewhere very near,” Adriana says.
She lives in Terrasini, near Sicily’s capital Palermo. It’s a beautiful part of the island – all steep hills giving way to white rocky shores that plunge into the deep blue of the Mediterranean.
But like much of southern Europe, Sicily – with its rugged landscape, knotty olive trees and ever-worsening drought – is as flammable as it is picturesque.
When a fire begins, it tears through valleys, fields and woodland at speed. Such areas, hard to reach at the best of times, become downright isolated when wildfires break out.
“Only firefighting aircraft can give us reassurance when the flames start,” says Daniela Arfuso, the mayor of Cardeto, a village perched on the hills of the Calabria’s vast Aspromonte national park.
The vital role of the amphibious Canadair in particular was brutally highlighted last week when two pilots were killed fighting blazes on the Greek island of Evia.
Greek TV showed the Canadair flying low to drop water on a fire before turning sharply into a hillside and bursting into flames.
The pilots were named as 34-year-old Cdr Christos Moulas and his co-pilot, 27-year-old Pericles Stefanidis. They have been hailed as heroes and on Thursday the Greek Parliament ruled that Mr Moulas’ unborn child would be supported until he was 25, to applause from MPs.
“It’s very hard to see for any professional, but especially for Canadair crew. There are not that many of us, and we all more or less know each other, it’s a bit of a brotherhood,” says Giulio Fini, a Canadair commander and the managing director of Avincis Italia, the aerial emergency services company that handles Italy’s Canadair fleet.
“When we see scenes like [the crash in Greece], we put ourselves in the pilots’ shoes – and our families do too. It’s a blow. At the same time, it’s motivation to learn to avoid accidents, to improve from a technical point of view.”
The Canadairs operate by scooping up water from either a lake or the sea and releasing it over fires.
They are are highly efficient – it takes only 10 to 12 seconds to pick up 6,000 litres of water. A Canadair can make up to 48 drops in three hours.
And they are essential in areas like the Mediterranean basin, where airports are few and far between and the type of territory doesn’t allow for huge aircraft to operate.
Yet only 220 have ever been made since they were launched in 1969. By 2015, they had gone out of production, with the maker blaming a lack of orders.
Within a few years, however, it became clear that Europe’s increasingly dry and hot summers would require boosted firefighting potential. Production was resumed in 2022, when six southern EU countries placed an order for 22 new planes.
Then, earlier this month, the EU – which at the moment leases the planes from individual countries – said it would buy an additional 12 Canadairs, although they won’t be available until 2027.
Italy has the largest Canadair fleet in the world, made up of 18 aircraft and 100 pilots. One of the few Canadair pilot training centres in the world is near Rome, and the only Canadair flight simulator is in Milan.
And so, perhaps against its will, Italy has become a centre of excellence in the fight against wildfires – expertise born from an ever-growing sense of urgency.
This year alone, almost 30% more land has burned across Europe than the 20-year annual average; in Greece, that number climbs to 83% above average.
Last year, Canadair planes dropped more than 153 million litres of water on Italian territory and tackled 2,200 fires. This July alone, Canadair pilots clocked almost 800 hours of work.
Cdr Fini tells me that, although most of the work for pilots occurs in the summer, the colder months – which give pilots some respite – are crucial. “We use winter to prepare for the worst,” he says.
Using data and flight logs from the previous summer, Cdr Fini says his pilots “study how fire behaves, iron out methods and learn from the previous year: what could we have done better? And we tailor our training accordingly, so that every year we are a bit more prepared.”
Pilots, after all, have to know the elements exceptionally well. They assess things like whether the sea is calm enough to allow the plane to pick up water and study the flora of the area.
“Knowing what kind of greenery is fuelling the blaze, as well as the type of land the flames are burning through, helps us understand how the fire will develop,” Cdr Fini tells me.
There is no room for improvisation. Failing to study the lay of the land or the direction of the winds, for example, could lead pilots into a narrow valley and have thick smoke and ash blown back at them, potentially obstructing their view. Low electrical cables are a death hazard, too, as are burning tree tops.
Then, of course, there are human risks. “We pay a lot of attention to the exhaustion levels of pilots who have to work in very tense conditions in a challenging environment for long days,” says Cdr Fini. He says his company employs nutritionists who work with pilots and devise a diet plan to ensure they perform at their best on long, hot work days.
Nothing is left to chance – even the soles of the pilots’ boots are smooth instead of ridged to prevent small rocks that could be blown into the engine from getting lodged into them.
But sometimes, all the preparation in the world is not enough, as Cdr Fini knows.
He says that one of the “worst moments” of his life was eight years ago on the Italian island of Sardinia, where fires tear through hundreds of hectares each year. He had flown one of six Canadairs that spent the day trying to put out a huge wildfire amid high winds.
“The blaze had been so aggressive that I remember telling my co-pilot that it almost felt like we were dropping fuel on the flames rather than water because the fire just kept growing,” he says.
When he got back to the hotel that night, he turned on the news and discovered that two people in the area they had been dousing all day had died in the fire. “I didn’t sleep that night. I felt it had all been pointless,” he says.
People have died in the fires this summer too. By the time firefighters managed to bring a huge blaze in Cinisi near Palermo under control, the fire had already claimed two victims: the bodies of an elderly couple were found in a charred home nearby.
Mayor Arfuso says that earlier this week, local residents spent “long, terrifying nights trying to keep the flames at bay while waiting for dawn to break” so Canadairs – which can’t fly at night – would come to their rescue.
I argue that wildfires are formidable enemies, and that surely Canadair pilots deserve admiration.
But Cdr Fini pushes back: “We are not brave heroes. We are professionals,” he says. “We know what we can and can’t do. We are prepared to face fires because we study them in depth.”
As European summers heat up, the Canadairs will continue to take off – its pilots flying towards what most run away from.
“Protecting land and people is more than just a professional value,” Cdr Fini says. “It’s what Canadair pilots do. It’s in our DNA.”
(Source: BBC, by Laura Gozzi)