Greece is facing a “natural disaster of unprecedented proportions.” Those are the words of the country’s prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who said in an address to the nation on Monday that firefighters had battled over 580 fires. The fires have come amid Greece’s hottest summer since 1987.
With the blazes well into their second week, at least three people have died, over 10% of the country’s forests have been burned, and the international community is sending supplies. “We may have done what was humanly possible, but sometimes that wasn’t enough in the uneven battle with nature,” Mitsotakis said Monday night.
Confronting imagery of the flames has spread across social media, showing alarming scenes similar to catastrophic fires seen in Australia and California. It comes less than a month after floods devastated central Europe, and as Siberia, Turkey and Italy too battle intense wildfires.
The wildfires are thought to be a product of climate change, with extreme weather events made more likely by Earth’s warming atmosphere. On Monday the International Panel on Climate Change, detailing the path humanity is charting to a potentially uninhabitable world.
When did the fire start?
The fires began in late July, in the city of Petras. As July turned to August, conflagrations occurred mainly in four more regions: Attica, Olympia, Messenia, and Evia. The fires in Attica and Evia are north and northeast of Athens — close enough for suburbs in Athens to literally feel the heat, with the blue summer sky now turned into a smoky grey — while the fires in Olympia and Messenia are in south western, more regional Greece.
The fires are blazing throughout much of the country, with Deputy Civil Protection Minister for Crisis Management Nikos Hardalias saying over 60 fires were active over the weekend. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said firefighters had battled over 560 fires in total.
Despite the breadth of the wildfires, the northeast island of Evia is the epicenter. The national government has urged residents of Evia to evacuate their homes, though many have defied orders. Boats have been ferrying thousands of Evia residents to safer parts of the country.
With no end immediately in sight, the blazes have already proven to be an ecological disaster. An estimated 10-12% of the country’s forests have been burned, amounting to 110,000 hectares of damage. Three people have died in the fires, including a firefighter, and 20 have been injured.
What caused the fires?
Extreme heat. Greece has experienced a particularly hot European summer, said to be the most sustained heatwave since one in 1987 that killed over 1,000. The heatwave has also affected Italy and Turkey, with wildfires in the latter country having claimed eight lives already.
Potential arson is being investigated as a cause, with at least three people having been arrested for arson thus far. However, the heat conditions that allowed the blazes to spark and blaze are being blamed at least in part by climate change. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis was unequivocal on the blaze’s cause: “If there are even few people who have reservations about whether climate change is real, I call on them to come here and see,” he said.
“We have seen devastating fires in Turkey and Greece amid an intense and long-lasting heatwave in the Mediterranean,” said World Meteorological Organization (WMO) Secretary-General Petteri Taalas. “Siberia — a region traditionally associated with permafrost — has once again seen huge wildfires after exceptional heatwaves, fires and low Arctic sea ice in 2020.”
“The harsh reality of climate change is playing out in real time before our very eyes.”
An IPCC report published Monday contained a staggering amount of data and evidence that human activity is causing the planet to warm, and our window to arrest the process is closing. The report provides the most up-to-date estimates on the increasing likelihood the climate will surpass a 1.5-degree Celsius level of warming in the next decades, and — as IPCC reports have since 1990 — it urges immediate action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Is anyone helping Greece?
Over 20 countries have contributed to Greece’s battle against the wildfires. Firefighters have been sent by France, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Germany, Kuwait, Israel, Kuwait, Maldova, Romania, Qatar, Serbia, Slovakia, the UK and the Ukraine. Others, like Russia, Spain and the US have sent airplanes and other vehicles.
How can I help?
A number of charities and NGOs have directed efforts to helping victims of the fires that are blazing across Greece, Turkey and Italy.