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14 June, 2024
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Greece's wildfire crisis: Severity and root cause

Deadly heatwave and dry conditions fuel fires

Source: The Guardian

How bad are the fires this year?
Roaring fires have ripped through Greece, belching thick clouds of choking smoke and forcing tens of thousands of people to flee.

The country's area burned by wildfires, as of 23 July, is well above the average for the last 16 years.

The deadly heatwave baking Europe, stoked by carbon pollution, has made conditions ripe for fires to spread across the continent.

How dangerous are wildfires?
There are many ways fires can hurt you. The first is getting caught by the flames. With fast winds and dry plants, a fire can spread faster than you can run from it. Burns are the biggest killer. Heatstroke and dehydration pose a particular problem for firefighters.

The sky over Rhodes glows orange as the wildfire burns. Video: Ted G Bailos
Wildfire survivors, some of whom go through the trauma of losing family, homes, and businesses, show increased rates of depression. The effects can last decades and are strongest in children.

But even people far from the flames can be harmed by the smoke. The wind carries tiny, toxic particles of burned matter that enter the lungs and pass into the bloodstream, where they wreak havoc on the cardiovascular system.

These wildfire-related PM2.5 – particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter – are associated with asthma, weak lungs, and early death.

People evacuating fire-hit areas of Corfu. Credit: Alex Tkach
In Greece, concentrations of these deadly particles are already well above average for the year.

What caused the wildfires?
Many things can spark a wildfire: campfires, cigarettes, lightning, even sunlight. But how far it spreads depends on the weather.

By burning fossil fuels and destroying nature, people have heated the planet by 1.2C – and Europe by 2C – above pre-industrial levels, making the hot, dry conditions in which wildfires thrive more common across the continent.

A wildfire at a Unesco-protected geopark burns in the Greek mainland’s Peloponnese region. Video: Alexis Lehouritis
Scientists cannot know exactly how big the climate crisis has played in the Greek wildfires until they carry out an attribution study. But they expect fires in the region to grow stronger in the future.

In its latest review of the science, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that heat-induced fire weather in southern Europe will increase by 14% if the planet heats by 2.5C. Current policies put it on track for 2.7C.

Who is affected?
The destruction is worst on the islands of Rhodes, Corfu, and Evia. There, residents and tourists have sought shelter as firefighters tackled the blazes, while emergency services ferried people away from danger. Many visitors from abroad have flown home.

Copernicus, the EU’s Earth observation agency, showed fire danger risk across most of Greece, Italy, Spain, and Turkey, as well as parts of North Africa and central Europe.

How can people stay safe?
By avoiding wildfires, if possible, and by protecting themselves from smoke – for instance by closing windows or staying indoors.

The holes in regular Covid-19 masks are big enough to let in PM2.5 particles, but well-fitted N95 respirator masks offer some protection.

The Red Cross tells people to be ready to evacuate quickly and to familiarise themselves with the community’s response plan.

Governments can cut their carbon pollution to prevent hot weather from getting worse, and fund firefighters, doctors, and nurses to deal with its effects today.

Cyprus  |  wildfire  |  Greece  |  Rhodes

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