“Greece is on fire”: it’s made news all over the world, but here we feel the direct impacts. Scorching temperatures of up to 46.4ºC have turned our forests to tinderboxes, prone to burst into flame regardless of the spark.
A firestorm of speculations and accusations in both official and unofficial media has swirled as people search for answers to rationalise these desperate events. But whether the devastating fires engulfing Greece – especially on Rhodes, Corfu and Evia – are ignited by human negligence (stats show this represents the majority of cases), unregulated holiday home real estate speculation, private interests or illegal forestry practices, the reality they shed light on is the rising heat and a failure to adequately prepare for and contain such disasters, which pose a severe threat not only to human lives but to the country’s precious biodiversity.
A worsening fire risk
The evolution and spread of wildfires is influenced by changes in landscapes that accumulate dry biomass, along with increased heat waves and prolonged droughts spurred by climate change. The fire risk season is also expanding: the number of days of extreme fire risk has increased worldwide and doubled in the Mediterranean basin in the last 40 years.
Combined with a lack of forest management and the surge in dry biomass due to human activity being abandoned, fires can spread uncontrollably, reaching urban areas and homes without mandatory preventive plans. These are the perfect ingredients for the chaos of the past weeks.
Prevention is better than cure
If wildfires are changing, the solutions must also be different to avoid explosive firebombs that are impossible to extinguish. European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS) data shows 42,900 hectares have burned already in Greece in 2023, nearly double the area compared to 2022 and triple the area of 2020. Pouring water in a large wildfire is like spitting into the inferno: more airplanes are of little use if we do not manage our forests with adequate funding, investment and actions instead of talk.
There are a number of things to understand about how and why Greece’s devastating fires are getting so much worse so fast.
5 crucial insights to understand the fires crisis
1. The climate crisis is making wildfires more dangerous, rapid and uncontrollable.
As a consequence, we find ourselves in a territory that is increasingly hotter, drier and more susceptible to fires, while also suffering from a lack of proper management and protection.
Studies have also shown patterns of a wet season with higher precipitation coupled with prolonged drought to be a particularly dangerous combination, as rains allow for more growth of plants which subsequently die and dry out during the drought period, increasing burnable biomass available to strengthen and spread flames.
Pine trees and evergreen shrubs possess abundant fuel for wildfires, and they have developed natural adaptations to withstand such fires as a normal part of their life cycle. However, when combined with strong winds and high temperatures, prolonged dry seasons create an environment where burnable fuels become more readily available, intensifying wildfires and making them increasingly dangerous and uncontrollable.
2. But the increasing frequency and severity of forest fires is not solely down to the climate crisis – the government is pouring fuel on the flames
While climate change is a global issue, it is equally crucial for governments to take responsibility for their own actions and enact policies that promote sustainability and environmental protection.
Despite being aware of the detrimental effects of climate change, and despite decades of policy proposals, the Greek government has failed to take adequate action to mitigate its own contributions to the climate crisis, which continues to exacerbate the severity and frequency of extreme weather events. Instead of responding to the urgent alarm these fires present, politicians have engaged in activities that further worsen the situation: the government’s prioritisation of potential short-term economic gains over long-term sustainability (both the large investments on gas-related infrastructure and ongoing plans for drilling the country for new gas) has led to substantial incentives and over-subsidisation of fossil fuels with public money.
3. Greece is a forested and mountainous country without an effective, enforced National Forestry Strategy
For decades, the national forestry service has suffered from severe underfunding and a lack of a proper management plan for wildfire prevention. Consequently, reforestation without a logical biodiversity plan has accumulated significant amounts of dry biomass.
Sparse forests and shrubs grew from 1990-2020, reducing open spaces between forestry tree species by 4%.
These hectares form a vulnerable, continuous and unmanaged mass, making them more flammable and promoting the spread of large forest fires.
4. People moving from rural to urban areas increases the area prone to burning
It is easy to think of populated areas as some of the most significant risk areas for fire damage, but fires spread fastest in areas where there is little to no human presence to control them. We have to revitalise the rural environment in a way that encourages people to settle in those areas, mitigating the effects of depopulation due to the concentration of economic opportunities in major cities. A mosaic agroforestry landscape, with activities linked to a primary sector deeply rooted in the territory, is a landscape more resilient against major forest fires, climate change and the loss of biodiversity (and agrodiversity).
5. Forest fires are a social problem requiring social solutions
That is not to say that unchecked urbanisation is the answer. Urban planning has not adequately considered the risk of forest fires and there are urban developments, housing and infrastructure in harm’s way. Urbanisation must be prohibited in such high-risk areas and instead inequality – and insufficient access to resources and livelihoods in struggling rural economies – must be addressed with the active participation of rural communities. An inclusive perspective for rural development requires broad agreements that incorporate the rural population, their issues and their needs into the necessary investments and decision-making processes.
Dousing the flames
Whatever the cause or source of each fire, it is virtually impossible to monitor every corner of the Greek mountains and forests. Establishing a well-organised and efficient forest fire extinction body equipped with the necessary staff, support and resources is crucial – butwithout proper and effective forestry management and prevention measures, no extinction system can effectively halt the magnitude of fires witnessed in recent years.
In this sense, the current distribution of resources in Greece appears to heavily favour firefighting, rather than the recommended approach which emphasises the crucial role of prevention.The available funds for forest services are barely enough to cover 10% of their needs while 80% of the budget covers suppression, and only 20% is used for prevention.
Prevention plays a vital role in mitigating the impact of wildfires and facilitating their management and extinguishment in cases where prevention measures may not have been sufficient. By collectively rethinking our relationship with ecosystems and taking proactive steps, we can strive for a more resilient and sustainable coexistence with nature while protecting our environment and communities.
Ignacio Navarro is a climate and energy campaigner with Greenpeace Greece, with a degree Forest Management Engineering from the Technical University of Huelva in Spain