ITALY – Two Italian students accused of starting a wildfire that damaged a vast area of forest have been fined an astounding €27 million (£23.4m) by the country’s forestry service.
The young men lit a barbecue in a garden near Lake Como in the north of Italy on December 30 to celebrate the approach of the New Year.
But sparks from the barbecue allegedly started a fire which quickly spread, thanks to high winds and unusually dry conditions, eventually burning more than 1,000 hectares of forest, damaging several properties and killing domestic animals, including horses, near the village of Sorico.
Alessio Molteni, 22, and Daniele Borghi, 22, said they were “deeply sorry” about the fire caused by their barbecue.
“As soon as the fire broke out we called the fire service and we threw ourselves at the flames to try to put them out,” said Mr Molteni.
They said they had been made “scapegoats”, claiming that the wider forest fire was sparked not by their barbecue but by some other source.
Mr Molteni’s lawyer, Ivana Anomali, said that fining the young men such a huge sum made no sense because they would never be able to pay the sum.
“What is the sense of imposing a sanction of €13.5 million each knowing that these two kids, who are still students, cannot pay it,” she told La Stampa newspaper.
She said the matter would go to trial, at which the young men would likely appeal the fine and argue that the forest fire did not originate with their barbecue.
A forensic investigation by the forestry service indicated, however, that the fire started from the barbecue that the students had set up in the garden of Mr Borghi’s grandfather, who may be held legally liable for paying a portion of the fine.
The forestry service calculated the massive penalty by measuring how much land had been burnt and how much it was worth per square metre.
A prosecutor in the case said that the fine should act as a warning to others.
“We need to put pressure on people to take greater responsibility for the environment and to prevent the imprudent use of flammable materials,” said chief prosecutor Nicola Piacente.
He said the fine was “unprecedented” and took into account the cost of deploying firefighters and water-bombing aircraft.
Attilio Fontana, the governor of Lombardy, the region where the fire took place, said the size of the penalty “gives an idea of the scale of the damage that was done”.
“I hope that these kids will pay more attention next time,” he said.