Sicily fire crew 'caused fires for cash'

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
A wildfire raged in Sicily's Messina district last month

Italian police have questioned 15 volunteer firefighters in southern Sicily accused of starting fires in order to get paid to put them out.

In the alleged fraud, the volunteers rang the emergency 115 number themselves or got friends or relatives to do it. Their commander allegedly skipped shifts in order to start fires.

The team, in the Ragusa district, were each paid about 10 euros (£9) an hour.

They came under suspicion because they were called out more often than others.

The fires date back to 2013-2015, and police decided to impose house arrest only on the commander - not the others - because the criminality was not recent. He was named as Davide De Vita.

Italian media report that most of the 15 volunteers have admitted committing fraud against the state.

Ragusa is in south-eastern Sicily, about 105km (65 miles) from Catania.

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
An Italian police photo showed the main suspect, Davide De Vita (flanked by officers), under arrest
Image source, EPA
Image caption,
Davide De Vita, 42, is suspected of having started fires

Police said analysis of the 115 calls had shown up mistakes by some of those involved in the fraud. Sometimes the same phone was used repeatedly but different names were given, police said.

In some cases, call-outs were reported for non-existent fires. To explain why water had not been used in such cases, the volunteers claimed that animals had been roaming in the area, and had to be left alone.

Italians are currently sweltering in a heatwave that has pushed temperatures above 40C (104F) and dried out the vegetation, making wildfires common.

Spain, Portugal, southern France and the Balkans have also experienced abnormally hot weather this summer.

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