The hills in the wealthy Athens suburb of Varympompi are lined with rows of burned trees after fires swept through the area last August. Some pine trees still showed flickering signs of life, the pale brown upper branches contrasting with their blackened trunks. The nearby wedding halls were reduced to burnt shells. The air still smells of dust and ash.
Two local workers cleared burned trees and debris from an area of 12 square kilometers. “We will leave some of these, the ones that are in good condition, in the hope that new trees will grow,” said one, who identified himself only as Agilos, picking up a charred pineapple.
A seed from another tree fell on his arm and he picked it up. “This is a good sign. It means that things will be renewed,” he said. “I just hope the trees have time to produce more seeds before the next fire. If not, there will be no more pines.”
Preventing another wildfire summer like this is now a priority for experts and officials alike.
Forest fires are an annual occurrence in the Mediterranean, but climate change has led to stronger heat waves and a longer and more intense annual fire season. On average, 80% of the burned area across Europe occurs in the Mediterranean region, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature.
This summer was also one of the worst on record. The fires raged across the region, from Tunisia and Algeria in the south to Spain, Italy and Greece in the north. In southern Turkey and Greece, residents and tourists fled burning areas as authorities struggled to deploy firefighting planes to the worst hit areas. The fires caused at least 86 deaths, 69 of which occurred in Tunisia and Algeria.
Two decades of data from the European Forest Fire Information Service (Effis) provide some reason for hope. “We are seeing a decrease in the number of burned areas, but that is due to an increase in fire fighting units,” said Jesus. San-Miguel-Ayanz, specialist in fire risk management and coordinator of Effis.
The problem, he said, is the unusually hot and intense summers. “We still have spikes, which are dangerous, as we have critical fires that we didn’t have in the past. We are talking about unprecedented fires that have never happened this way before ”.
Effis data shows that in the last 20 years, fires in the Mediterranean have decreased in number as countries have increased their firefighting capacity. But at the same time, climate breakdown is leading to longer and drier summers, which means that when fires do occur they are much more intense, move faster and are much more difficult to extinguish, in part because they pose a deadly risk to equipment. terrestrial firefighting.
Peak years in which there have been multiple intense uncontrollable fires are also becoming more frequent. “I have been monitoring fires in Europe since 2000, but the number of critical years has increased,” Ayanz said.
2021 was the second worst year in the history of forest fires in the Mediterranean after 2017, when 12 million hectares of land burned across Europe and 127 people died. Countries like Greece reoriented their fire response strategy to minimize the loss of human life when fires occur, but authorities across Europe have yet to figure out how to prevent deaths and protect the environment.
Wildfire prevention is as much about human action as it is about slowing down climate change. “90% of all fires globally and 95% of fires in Europe are caused by humans,” Ayanz said. Prevention starts with teaching people that even littering can be fatal, as garbage can catch fire, while cigarettes casually thrown from car windows or barbecues can start fires that quickly get out of control.
Join the volunteer fire brigade. “I think the solution to the fires is simply to train volunteers,” said Spyros Politopoulos, a funny 50-year-old who is one of 2,200 volunteer firefighters in Greece who fought the fire in Varympompi.
Politopoulos attributes his decision to enlist as a volunteer firefighter nine years ago to his being “an adrenaline junkie.” But as climate change increases the frequency and intensity of fires, there will need to be more like it across the Mediterranean, especially in remote areas far from urban firefighting infrastructure. “Instead of criticizing from my couch, I decided to be part of my city,” he said. Now he works three shifts a month.
The solution, according to Politopoulos and his colleagues, is to expand the number of volunteer firefighters who can tend to small fires locally to prevent them from spreading.
Volunteers are an official component of firefighting units in most European countries, undergoing rigorous training in order to serve alongside their paid colleagues, and summers like this often generate new recruits. The problem, Politopoulos said, is that volunteers often have to pay for their own equipment or rely on donations. “When you are going to volunteer and your own government says you have to buy your own things, then we have a problem,” he said.
The long-term strategy also requires governments to analyze how to prevent the accumulation of twigs, branches and other highly combustible biomass in the forest floor. Many places that experience annual wildfires, such as California, use a technique known as controlled burning that involves lighting supervised fires during the winter to clear the forest of material that can easily burn out of control in the summer.
Greece does not use controlled burning and global warming has made the conditions for doing so riskier, even in winter. Furthermore, the pines that populate the forests of Greece are a particularly flammable species.
A 2018 government investigation to investigate deadly fires in the coastal city of Mati found that Greece has spent much more on firefighting than prevention, and called on the state to improve its fire prevention system. This included guidance on how the government should remove bureaucratic hurdles and allow different agencies to work together on clearing forests in winter to prevent fires. However, little has changed apart from the creation of a new minister for the climate crisis and civil protection, designated earlier this month in response to the destruction that occurred this summer.
“During the winter there were heavy rains, leaving a lot of broken trees in the forest, and no one had the intention of cutting them down,” said Politopoulos, annoyed by the lack of strategy. “The fires are extinguished during the winter,” he said. “It is like a war. You need to prepare during downtime, winter, so everyone is ready. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism