Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on September 1, 2017.

‘Is It Supposed to Be Doing That?’

An NFPA Journal staffer's up-close encounter with wildfires on Mount Vesuvius


As our rental car hurtled down Italian highway E45 toward Pompeii last July, my classical archeologist girlfriend bounced excitedly in the passenger seat. Katie has been obsessed with this ill-fated Roman city and its unfortunate residents since she read about their plight in Discovery Kids magazine at age seven. Since then she has eagerly plowed through every scholarly article and kitschy B-movie she could find on these poor people, who were buried alive under volcanic ash during an eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. Now we were both ready to see the real deal.

As expected, Katie grasped my arm tightly when Vesuvius finally appeared over a crest in the road just north of Naples. As she grinned, I looked out in awe. The volcano rising next to the Mediterranean was more menacing and brooding than I had imagined. It looked alive. As we drew closer, the excitement turned to uncertainty and eventually to concern. Could the volcano be erupting?

Ruins of Pompeii while smoke rages in background.

Photograph: Jesse Roman

What appeared to be steam from a distance was on closer look a huge plume of smoke churning violently upwards from the cone. The cloud’s underbelly glowed fiercely with dark oranges and reds, hinting at the inferno burning below. Being far less familiar, I asked the obvious: “Is it supposed to be doing that?” Katie just shook her head. It felt like we were driving toward a disaster in the making, but what to do? Pompeii wasn’t an optional stop on the itinerary.

When we arrived at the ruins, the tourism worker anticipated our first question—the same one she’d been hearing all day. No, the volcano wasn’t erupting, she said. It was a massive wildfire. Multiple fires on each side of the volcano had exploded and combined overnight, voraciously consuming the dry cypress, pines, and shrubs that thrive in the rich volcanic soil. Extraordinarily hot temperatures and a lasting drought had seeded the mountain for such an event. An arsonist’s match did the rest.

It was surreal to walk the ancient ruins and gaze up at angry Vesuvius billowing dark smoke, looking perhaps much as it did the day nearly two millennia ago when it killed so many people. Unlike the ancient eruption, the July fire didn’t take any lives or cause widespread destruction even as it burned an estimated seven square miles of forest over the course of about a week. It did force evacuations and give locals and tourists a fright.

Ruins of Pompeii while smoke rages in background.

Photograph: Jesse Roman

I’m thankful to say that the fire didn’t spoil our time exploring Pompeii—if anything it delivered a powerful truth most tourists don’t get to really feel. Even if briefly, we tasted the fear this awesome volcano has inspired for millennia in civilizations from ancient Rome to modern Italy. Living in the Bay of Naples in the shadow of this Mediterranean monster is a lesson in vigilance and comes with much risk. That’s especially true now that fires are prone to burning both inside and out.

JESSE ROMAN is associate editor for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Jesse Roman