As devastating forest fires ravage Greece, experts say the fires cast a harsh light on the inability to prepare for and contain them, threatening irreversible damage to the country’s rich biodiversity.
Climatologists warn that extreme weather and severe fires will become more frequent due to man-made global warming, increasing the need to invest in people, equipment and policies to fight the blazes .
But “Greece has always fought to protect its rich ecosystem,” Takis Grigoriou, who heads the climate change department of Greenpeace Greece, told AFP.
Greece – along with Turkey, Italy, Spain and Algeria – has been hit by a wild fire season that Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis called an “ecological disaster”.
The authorities were taken by surprise at the end of July, when hundreds of fires broke out around Athens, but also on the islands of Euboea and Rhodes and in the Peloponnese peninsula.
Critics say poor infrastructure, weak politics and a lack of respect for nature are at least in part to blame for the failure to contain the fires in Greece.
As a result, valuable ecosystems will pay the price and human lives are at risk.
– Failed prevention policy –
In two weeks, more than 100,000 hectares of land went up in smoke, devouring buildings, pine forests, olive groves, beehives and livestock and forcing dozens of people to flee their homes.
The European Forest Fire Information System said it was the biggest loss of land since 2007.
On Tuesday, more than 400 Greek and Polish firefighters were battling for a second day against a massive blaze on a mountain near Vilia, about 60 kilometers (40 miles) northwest of Athens.
Suffocating heat waves like those that blanket southern Europe increase the flammability of forests.
But Efthymis Lekkas, a professor at the University of Athens in natural disaster management, said Greece’s failing operational and prevention systems were also to blame.
“The fire roads in the forests were not a priority by the various Greek governments because they had no direct political impact,” he said, estimating the long-term impacts of the fires at around five. billion euros ($ 5.9 billion).
And illegal constructions, lack of forest mapping and disrespect for nature are all part of a failing fire prevention policy, Greenpeace’s Grigoriou said.
Residents interviewed by AFP denounced the lack of firefighters’ equipment to fight the huge fires, which pales in comparison to the means of firefighters from twenty other countries who have come to lend a hand.
A resident, who could only watch, helplessly, her village north of the island of Euboea being surrounded by flames, told local reporters that allowing the fires to get so close to the houses was a crime.
– Unique species –
Authorities have organized mass evacuations to avoid deaths, with the memory of the loss of 102 lives in the fires in July 2018 and 77 in 2007 still painful. This year, three deaths have been recorded so far.
Beyond the loss of human life, such wildfires will cause immense and lasting loss of biodiversity, says Diana Bell of the School of Biological Sciences at the University of East Anglia.
“Greece is home to more than 6,000 different species of plants and trees,” some of which “are not found anywhere else in the world,” Bell told AFP.
And when residents flee their homes as their properties are engulfed in flames, more rural areas are abandoned, increasing their flammability, she added.
Athens has linked the forest fires to climate change, but environmental groups accused the government of using rising temperatures as an excuse to cover up the lack of prevention resources and policies.
The country has ignored policy proposals from the World Wide Fund for Nature for 20 years, said the group’s Greek section chief Demetres Karavellas.
“The climate crisis is not an excuse to fail but should be seen as an alarm to spur change,” he said.
© 2021 AFP