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Greece Under Fire on Anniversary of Mati Disaster

Greece Wildfires
Four wildfires were burning across different regions of Greece on July 23rd amid rising temperatures, with meteorologists saying climate change is a direct result of the devastation. Credit: AMNA

At least four large fires are cutting a path of destruction across Greece on Saturday, burning homes and businesses, forcing evacuations, pushing into beach resorts, and scorching protected forests and parks.

Strong winds and temperatures in the mid-30s Celsius (mid-90s Fahrenheit) are fanning the flames in Evros in the east and on the island of Lesvos in the north Aegean Sea. In Grevena in northern Greece, a fire ignited in a remote mountainous area while land and air firefighting teams are battling a wildfire in Messinia in the southwest Peloponnese.

The wildfires come four years to the day that devastating blazes in the seaside Athens resort of Mati left 102 people dead and some 250 injured while roughly 2,500 homes were burned or damaged. Almost half of the houses are now habitable again.

The fire at Mati was the second-deadliest wildfire of the century after the 2009 bushfires in Australia which killed 173 people. It is also counted as the sixth-deadliest in the last one hundred years.

Meteorologists and climatologists say the increasing number of wildfires in the country cannot be ignored. While experts generally avoid linking single weather events such as wildfires to larger climate change patterns, it appears there has been a shift in tone among some.

Fires Show Climate Change “Is Already Happening”

“This is why we now talk of a climate crisis,” physicist-meteorologist Thodoris Giannaros, a researcher at the National Observatory of Athens Climate, told AMNA. “Change is not something that is going to happen sometime in the future,” he said. “It is already happening. It is happening now.”

As Greece now enters a sustained heatwave, much of western Europe is just coming out of one, which fueled devastating fires in France and Portugal amongst other places.

According to Giannaros, the extreme heatwave in north-western Europe, as well as the destructive forest fires in the western Mediterranean, are  linked to climate change.

Climate change doesn’t start fires, he said, but it “creates the necessary pyrometeorological mix (hot and dry and windy) so that any fire which starts can more easily grow and become potentially destructive,” he said.

Fires and Rising Number of Hot Days in Greece

The temperature in Europe especially will continue to increase at a rate that exceeds the global average, he added, while the number of very hot days have doubled or even tripled in Greece.

Professor Dominique Morvan at the University of Aix-Marseille, who studies the behavior of fires, struck a similar note. An expert in fire issues in France, she forecast that 2022 would be an extremely bad year for fires due to the lack of rain in the winter and spring.

“The vegetation is very dry everywhere and the repeated heat waves also contribute to an increase in the level of danger,” she said, citing reports from firefighters that fires in Europe were more intense and often exceeded the ability of firefighting aircraft to put them out, which had an impact on buildings and the population. Improved firefighting techniques, including the use of water-dropping planes, will not solve the problem, she said.

The real problem, Giannaros added, has been obvious for some time.

Giannaros notes that: “The data that we now have at our disposal is overwhelming and leaves absolutely no room to doubt climate change. The average temperature in Europe has been rising sharply for at least 40 years…In the last five years, especially, the average temperature on the European continent [has been] almost 2C higher than the equivalent measurement in the second half of the 19th century.”

He said Europe has been heating up more quickly than any other continent in the last fifteen years and that “observed heating is directly linked with the more frequent occurrence of hot episodes and/or heat waves, which are also marked by greater intensity and duration.”

According to Giannaros, the latest report from the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service More shows that the temperature in Europe will continue to increase at a rate exceeding the equivalent for global average temperatures while extreme temperatures will occur with ever-increasing frequency and ever-increasing intensity even in the more northern latitudes of the continent.

In Greece, the available evidence shows a doubling or tripling of days when the temperature exceeded 37 Celsius (98.6 degrees Fahrenheit) in the last thirty years. Also sharply increased was the incidence of heatwaves. With respect to the forecast for the future, the scientific community agrees that the frequency, intensity, and duration of high temperatures and/or heatwaves will increase up until the year 2100.

This all comes as Greece’s wildfire season has been a particularly damaging one. On Wednesday, hundreds of firefighters were needed to bring a large wildfire that began on the slopes of Mount Penteli under control. Firefighters managed to gain control of the fire a day after it broke out in the northern suburbs of Athens.

On Saturday, firefighters battled a wildfire at Dadia–Lefkimi–Soufli Forest National Park in Evros, which had burned eight hundred hectares of forest, or nearly two thousand acres, by Friday night. The protected area, home to dozens of animals and four hundred plant species, is Greece’s biggest Natura 2000 site.

Rainfall Will Decrease

Experts say that climate change also leads to a reduction of rainfall, with longer and more frequent periods of drought. Clear and worrying signs exist of an increase in the frequency and duration of periods of little or no rain.

Meanwhile, the period of intense rainfall, often accompanied by very strong winds, also increased the quantities of dead growth in forests that promoted fires, such as fallen branches, tree trunks, leaves, and others.

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