Fire – The first Three Weeks
This time last year, for three long weeks, a wild fire burned through the forested slopes of Monte Jovet above Patocco. The fire was believed to have been started by a lighting strike during a violent thunderstorm on 11 July 2013. The first firefighting response started on 14 July with a helicopter flying missions to drop water on what was then a small fire. The helicopters activities provided some entertainment for the inhabitants as this took place while everyone was gathered together for the feste di Patocco.
After, a couple of hours activity the smoke disappeared and the fire was declared extinguished. Sadly, this was not the case, a day later the helicopter was back as the fire had once again taken hold, burning through an ever larger area below the summit of Jovet.
Helicopters in Action
Over the course of the next three weeks, Patocco had two regular and very noisy visitors, helicopters I-NEED and I-HSUN which flew countless sorties over the village to drop water on the burning slopes of Monte Jovet above Patocco. With steep cliffs and impervious pine forest, the area around the summit of Monte Jovet is very difficult to access by foot making the firefighting effort more difficult.
The local squad from the “Protetzione Civile” established their base in a flat area on the banks of Raccolana stream a few hundred meters south of Saletto. This provided an ideal location for portable water tanks to be erected and filled allowing the helicopters to easily scoop up water. The base also provided somewhere for the helicopters to land and refuel. The helicopters used by the “Protetzione Civile” were both Eurocopter AS350B3 Ecureuils (Squirrels) operated by Elifriulia.
Arrival of the Canadairs
On 17 July reinforcements arrived from Italy’s national firefighting service in the form of three Candair firefighting planes and started to bomb the fire with water and fire retardant chemicals. However, it continued to spread with large plumes of smoke visible throughout the day and flames visible for some distance at night. The planes through regular trips flying west to Lago di Tre Comuni at Cavazzo, past Tolmezzo to scoop up another load of water. it should be remembered that the fire on Monte Jovet wasn’t the only one in the area. Another blaze was threatening the main communication arteries of the SS13 and the A23 motorway just a few Km north at Pietratagliata. This was putting extreme pressure on the available firefighting resources.
Extinguishing the fire was made more difficult by the very hot and dry summer, with winds from the plains helping to fan the flames. As it is not possible to fly fire fighting missions at night, a daily pattern emerged with the fire being brought under control in the daytime, only to continue burning at night, or smoulder underground to re-ignite elsewhere. There were a couple of rain storms during the three weeks the fire raged above Patocco. Both brought a false sense of security and insufficient rain to fully extinguish the fire which, in both cases returned with a vengeance within a couple of days. As the fire was still high up on the mountain, there was little concern that it would actually reach the village, especially now that the Canadairs were in action. It was unthinkable that they wouldn’t bring it under control.
A deteriorating situation
In the later days as the fire got bigger and started to burn across Gran Cuel, immediately above Patocco, rising air pressure at night trapped the smoke in the valley reducing visibility in the morning to less than one hundred meters. It was therefore not possible for the helicopters to fly until late morning, when the sun’s heat had released the trapped smoke. Furthermore, as the sun’s heat generated an afternoon breeze, the flames were fanned and the fire strengthened.
By now, it was becoming apparent that, without some heavy rain to kill the flames, bring the fire under control was going to be difficult. As the flames crept ever closer to the houses of Patocco, the “Protetzione Civile” started working around the clock implementing a second line of defence, setting up reserve tanks of water, firefighting equipment and cutting vegetation to make fire breaks. The mayor of Chiusaforte also issued an order providing for the evacuation of the villages if circumstances required it.
Despite, the best endeavours of all those involved, the fire kept on advancing and by early August was getting dangerously close to the village. But, much worse was yet to come.