Source AP ©

Wildfires engulf Sicily

Fires that have been ravaging southern Italy consumed a hotel near the Sicilian port city of Messina. 2 people are dead. 

Fire crews had been battling the blaze in Patti and other locations around Messina for hours when the winds suddenly changed and the fire reached the "Hawk's Refuge" agriturismo, a hotel within a working farm, the Messina fire department said.

Firefighters and an official at the prefect's office initially said three people had been killed: one in the hotel, one nearby next to a car and one in the hospital. The ANSA news agency, however, later quoted the regional civil protection department as saying only two victims were confirmed killed from the hotel.

It was not immediately clear if there was a third victim, perhaps from elsewhere in the area. The hospital in Patti said no one had died there from the blaze. Fire officials and the regional prefect's office refused to give any more information, and calls to the regional civil protection department in Palermo went unanswered late Wednesday.

Elsewhere in Sicily, fire crews were battling another blaze in the hills above the seaside resort town of Cefalu which prompted a local hospital to suspend surgeries as a precaution.

No injuries were reported from that fire, which began Tuesday evening, said Andrea Garifo, a fire official in the nearby town of Termini Imerese.

About 20 to 30 people were evacuated from residences, Garifo said.

Late Wednesday, the Italian defense minister, Arturo Parisi, ordered army reinforcements to help with the firefighting efforts across southern Italy - in particular in Sicily, Calabria and in the Cilento area south of Naples - and said he was also sending army and navy helicopters to the regions to help.

The hot winds of the scirocco, a wind that blows from northern Africa, have been fanning the flames in Sicily, devouring brush and trees. The strong winds have been blowing away much of the water that air tanker planes use to dump on the blaze.

Cefalu, about 70 kilometers (45 miles) east of Palermo, is a popular tourist destination, famed for its beaches and medieval architecture in the historic center.

Italian news reports said that staff and patients at Cefalu's San Raffaele-Giglio hospital had been ordered evacuated as a precaution, and a hospital switchboard operator confirmed that.

But later, a hospital director - saying there was some confusion - told Sky TG24 TV that there was no evacuation. Instead, the hospital had stopped doing "nonessential" surgeries as a precaution, Roberto Delzotto said.

A Civil Protection official in Cefalu, Giuseppe Chiarenza, said there was concern about smoke near the hospital, and people outside the buildings were seen with masks covering their faces.

ANSA reported that some villas on the outskirts of the town of some 15,000 people were damaged.

Garifo and the town's mayor said arson was suspected.

"A fire that erupts in five or six points some distance apart is suspicious," Mayor Giuseppe Guercio said.

More paramilitary Carabinieri police were sent to Cefalu to help fight the blaze and aid in the arson investigation, news reports said.

Most guests at the Hotel Alberi del Paradiso, some 7 kilometers (4.5 miles) from the fire, have chosen to remain, said Valeria Prestianni, an employee.

"The problem is the wind," she said. "Even if they are flying the air tankers, there's still a lot of smoke." But only two guests, Italians, decided to leave, she said, adding that hotel workers were watering the ground around the hotel as a precaution.

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