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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Italian Firefighters Battle Blazes Caused by Arson, Heat Wave

ROME -- Firefighters were battling on Wednesday to contain scattered fires across central and southern Italy, which authorities believe were largely caused by arsonists.

Two Canadair tanker planes were deployed to put out a blaze in the Sicilian city of Messina, the ANSA news agency said, while other fires were reported in Sardinia, Abruzzo -- the region where the pilot of a firefighting plane died earlier this week -- and other regions.

Scattered fires continued to rage on the Gargano Peninsula, a spur of land above the heel of the Italian boot where the situation has been more critical.

Two elderly people died there Tuesday, the Civil Protection Department said Wednesday, after early reports had put the number of victims at four. The fires also destroyed hundreds of hectares of forest and caused hundreds of residents and tourists to flee to the beach, where they were rescued by boats.

About 3,000 tourists and residents had to be evacuated from their hotels or homes, reports said. Many spent the night in schools and hotels in nearby towns.

Italy has been hit by a heat wave with temperatures exceeding 40 degrees Celsius in some cities, while many others registered temperatures in the high 30s C. But there is little doubt that arsonists were behind most of the blazes, said Guido Bertolaso, the head of the Civil Protection Department, which has been coordinating efforts to combat the fires.

"The pilots of the Canadair planes with whom I have been in contact told me that each time they extinguish a blaze they see four more suddenly spring up," he said.

Arsonists are acting mainly to clear land for pasture or to build illegally, officials say.