On Thursday, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Prime Minister of Greece, described the country’s devastating wildfires for more than a week in the worst ecological disaster Greece has seen in decades.
As the country was experiencing the longest and most severe heat wave since 1987, fires erupted. The country was ravaged by hundreds of wildfires, which stretched Greece’s firefighting abilities to the limits and led to the government appealing for assistance from abroad. Many firefighters and planes, helicopters, and vehicles from various European and Middle Eastern countries arrived to help.
Mitsotakis stated that while they managed to save lives, the forest fires caused the most severe ecological disaster in the past few decades.
Mitsotakis stated that authorities were faced with around 100 active fires per day during his first news conference since the fires began. The situation had improved significantly by Thursday with the majority of large wildfires now in the decline.
The prime minister however warned that there was still danger from more fires.
He said, “We are in August and it is clear that we will have many difficult days ahead” until the main season when fires start to erupt ends.
He said that the climate crisis — I would like to use this term and not climate change — is now and it showed us all what needs to be changed. He also stated that he was willing to make the “bold” changes necessary.
He said, “This is a common problem for all of us.”
Several Mediterranean countries have suffered intense heat and quickly spreading wildfires in recent weeks, including Turkey, where at least eight people have died, and Italy. In Algeria, wildfires in the mountains have killed at least 69 people.
Worsening drought and heat – both linked to climate change – have also fueled wildfires this summer in the Western United States and in Russia’s northern Siberia region. Scientists believe climate change is driving extreme events more than ever thanks to the burning of oil, coal, and natural gas.
The largest fire in Greece broke out on Evia, the country’s second-largest Island. It was started on Aug. 3, and was still burning on Thursday.
According to the Copernicus Emergency Management Service of the European Union, more than 50,900 ha were destroyed in northern Evia. Whole mountains of pine forest were reduced to blackened stumps. Olive and fig tree plantations, and vineyards were also destroyed.
Over 850 firefighters from Ukraine, Romania, Serbia and Slovakia were helping to stop flare-ups. Nine helicopters and eight aircraft assisted them, including two Ilyushin 1176 water-dropping planes.
Two large fires still raged in the Peloponnese region of southern Greece. The fire department also stated Thursday that 106 fires had been reported in Greece within the past 24 hours.
In its fire response, the government placed a high priority on protecting lives and issued dozens of evacuation orders to villages that were in the path of flames. The policy seems to have been successful in this respect. After being struck by an electric pole, a volunteer firefighter was killed while responding to a major fire in the north of Athens. Four volunteer firefighters were hospitalized with burns including two who are in critical condition in intensive medical care.
The Greek authorities were keen to avoid another summer like 2018, when a fast moving wildfire destroyed a settlement on the coast of Athens. More than 100 people died, some of them trying to escape by water.
Many residents and officials from areas that were affected by the fires this year have criticised the use of evacuation orders. They claim the orders are too early. They point out those who ignored evacuation instructions, stayed behind to fight the flames, and managed to save their homes.
“We were able to save thousands of people. During his press conference, Mitsotakis stated that we had lost trees and property. “And we’re here to discuss everything… (including) the places where nature left us unprepared.”
The government has been criticized for not having enough helicopters and firefighting aircraft, and not sending them quickly enough, especially to Evia. The authorities countered by saying that the aircraft were flying whenever possible but that not all firefighting planes can be in the air at once as some of them need to land for servicing.
When asked about the causes of the fires and whether there was an organized campaign to arson, Mitsotakis replied that it was “certain” that some of the fires started in the last few days. Several people were arrested for attempting to set fires, some even if they did so intentionally.
He said that it wasn’t clear if this was due to an organized plan and pointed out that the dry, hot conditions had contributed to the spread of wildfires.