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Almost 100,000 hectares of forest burned in Greece in less than two weeks

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mistotakis described the 586 fires as “a natural disaster of exceptional magnitude”.

greece-euboa-island-fire-in-the-north-of-the-greek-island-of-euboa-evia-firefighters-and-residents-in-the-north-of-the-greek-island-of-evia-are-fighting-for-the-eighth-straight-day-versus-a-resu Fire in the north of the Greek island of Euboa Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

NEARLY 100,000 HECTARES of forestry and farmland have burned in less than two weeks in Greece in the worst wave of wildfires since 2007, the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS) has said.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mistotakis described the 586 fires that ravaged several regions of Greece in just a few days as “a natural disaster of exceptional magnitude”.

More than 93,600 hectares went up in smoke in just 14 days, fuelled by an extraordinary heatwave that struck at the beginning of August, according to AFP calculations based on EFFIS data from 29 July to today.

The average burn over the same period between 2008-2020 was 2,330 hectares.

“They are still very destructive today everywhere, and have a rare high level of intensity,” according to Mark Parrington of Copernicus, the European Climate Change service, which includes EFFIS.

The symbolic threshold of 100,000 hectares burned in Greece is expected to be reached on Thursday or Friday, as fires continued to rage today in the Peloponnese in the west and the island of Evia in the east.

greece-euboa-island-09082021-greece-euboa-island-fire-in-kamatriades-in-the-north-of-the-greek-island-of-euboa-evia-firefighters-and-residents-in-the-north-of-the-greek-island-of-evia-are Firefighters and residents in the north of the Greek island of Evia fighting against a resurgence of the fire after trying to limit the fronts on the northeast side of the island Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Evia, Greece’s second biggest island, has borne the brunt of the fires, home to more than half the total area burned.

Its thick pine forests, still ablaze on today, have been largely reduced to ash in the northern part of the island.

While fires were to be expected given the very dry conditions, nothing suggested their dreadful scale, said Charalampos Kontoes, director of the National Observatory in Athens.

“To some extent, fires were expected because of the very dry season,” Kontoes told AFP. “But I can tell you that in Greece we never had such big fires. We have fires during hot seasons but not at that size.”

Deadly 2007 fires

In all, a total of around 110,000 hectares have gone up in flames this year as of today, with over 90% of the damage coming in the last two weeks alone. That’s compared to an average of just over 9,000 hectares over the previous 12 years, according to the latest EFFIS figures.

“Our data shows that we didn’t have such intense fires since August 2007,” said Parrington.

afidnes-greece-05th-aug-2021-firefighters-fight-a-forest-fire-in-a-wooded-area-north-of-athens-a-massive-forest-fire-is-raging-again-in-the-north-of-athens-which-the-fire-brigade-was-unable-to-b Firefighters fight a forest fire in a wooded area north of Athens Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

More than 250,000 hectares of forests and olive groves were burnt in August 2007 in wildfires that killed 77 people.

This year’s fires came as Greece suffered its worst heatwave in three decades. For a week, temperatures reached 45 degrees Celsius in several parts of the country, and flirted with a stifling 43 degrees Celsius in the capital Athens.

Experts say there is a clear link between the heatwave and climate change. A draft UN assessment seen by AFP described the Mediterranean as a “climate change hotspot”, saying increasing temperatures had lengthened fire seasons.

‘Blisteringly clear’ climate change links

“The links between climate and wildfire are blisteringly clear in Mediterranean Europe,” said Matthew Jones, an expert in climate change at the University of East Anglia in eastern England.

“Since the 1980s, the annual number of days with extreme fire weather conditions has roughly doubled, dramatically increasing the risk of wildfires.”

“A lot of agricultural area has also been destroyed,” said the National Observatory’s Kontoes, adding that this would have a devastating effect on the economy of communities impacted by the fires.

The land will take “years to regenerate”, he said.

The weather offers no immediate respite, according to  Thomas Smith, Professor of Geography at the London School of Economics.

“Unfortunately, EFFIS forecasts suggest that forest fires will persist in Greece until there is significant rainfall – at least until 17 August,” Smith said.

“The wildfires will persist until there is some significant rainfall, and it is likely that the situation might worsen before it gets better.”

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