Back in the 1980s, as an increase in forest fires claimed more than 5,000 hectares (12,355 acres) a year, few people spoke of climate change even though summer temperatures were marking new records and heatwaves had become a cause for concern.
Two years ago, when wildfires destroyed the northern half of the island of Evia, northeast of Athens, geophysicist Christos Zerefos told me the fire followed Greece’s longest heatwave.
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“There was never one like it,” he said. “In 1987 it lasted five days. In 2007 it was six days, and now 11 days. It keeps on increasing.”
The fires that struck areas near Athens this week also came just after a heatwave.
Data compiled by the Athens Observatory, which monitors weather across the country, also show that average temperatures in Greece have risen by almost 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) since 1990.
Zerefos led a team of scientists to study the costs of climate change for the Bank of Greece in 2011. They concluded that without mitigation or adaptation efforts, climate change would cost Greece almost $800bn this century – three and a half times its gross domestic product (GDP) – largely in lost tourism and agriculture revenue. An update of the study currently under way will raise that estimate, Zerefos told me.
I had an opportunity to see the effects of wildfire on agriculture in 2007, Greece’s worst-ever loss of forest cover. In a single summer, 2.3 percent of the country’s surface area turned to ash.
As I stood in the village of Vrina, in the region of Zaharo in southwest Greece on August 25, I watched a broad fire front slowly move down Mount Lapithas, about 1km (0.6 miles) away across a narrow valley.
The fire crawled downhill claiming underbrush and shrubs. When it reached a new cluster of pines, it would flare up violently with the noise of jet engines reversing on a runway. Its heat warmed cheeks in Vrina, and it produced enough light to read by.
In the nationwide emergency, the people of Vrina had been told there was no available fire engine to send to their aid. I watched the young men of the village smoke and wait until the fire reached the edge of their olive groves, which surrounded Vrina. Then they got into their tractors, which carried 500-litre pesticide tanks, now filled with water, and drove to the fire.
Their spray hoses were no good against a pine forest blaze, they explained, but could defend olive groves where the trees were smaller and more spaced out, which slowed the fire down. Pine trees are more inflammable because they are filled with resin sap, from which white spirit is made. Olive trees are more fire-resistant.
In nearby Makistos, villagers showed a similar spirit when they fought to save their homes without a fire engine. “We didn’t have water, so I sprayed the fire with wine,” George Dimopoulos, a robust middle-aged man, told me. He put his produce in a pesticide-spraying backpack and poured away 200kg (441 pounds) of it, but believes that it saved his house and those of two neighbours. “I fought for 17 hours,” he said.
In the neighbouring municipality of Gryllos, two young men on tractors ferried massive tankers full of water mounted on trailers to fire engines at the battlefront, roaring down the high street atop their tractors like modern-day centaurs from dawn until well into the night.
“We keep resupplying them with water. If it weren’t for that, we would have lost the village this morning,” 21-year-old Marinos Karahristos, a skinny lad with exuberant energy, told me.
It was a similar spirit that saved villages in Evoia two years ago. The government had advised people to evacuate to avoid a repeat of the tragedy that occurred in July 2018, when a wildfire swept through the seaside town of Mati, east of Athens, killing 103 people.
Most people did not listen and stayed behind to protect their homes. One of those people was Vangelis Yiorgatzis, a pine resin harvester. Together with a handful of men from his village of Skepasti, he drove around the village perimeter with pesticide-spraying equipment, putting out fires as they started.
“There was flaming debris raining down on the village. Some of it from 1km away,” he says. “As soon as we saw a fire, we put it out immediately.”
“Those of us who stayed in our villages and defended our homes with spraying equipment saved them,” says Yiorgatzis. “Those who were persuaded to evacuate out of fear were burned out.”
A fire engine was posted to the village of Skepasti, Yiorgatzis told me. It did nothing to help, he said, because the firefighters’ orders were to extinguish only burning houses.
Forest fires, which have become almost an annual phenomenon in Greece and the rest of the Mediterranean, are costly. In 2007, the government, then in the midst of an election, immediately handed out 3,000 euros ($3,370 at the current rate) to every resident in fire-stricken areas who claimed it.
Two years ago, it budgeted $82m to pay resin harvesters to curate the pine forest as it regenerated. But these were only the tip of the iceberg. Fruit-bearing trees need a decade to produce at full capacity. Each time tens of thousands are lost, there is a danger that some farmers will simply quit the profession.
There is also a political cost. In Zaharo in 2007, in Mati in 2018 and in Evoia in 2021, local residents lost their faith in the government. In retrospect, Mati should have been evacuated because a wind-whipped fire was racing towards it. The residents of Evoia felt vindicated in defying orders to evacuate. Politicians were nowhere to be seen, apparently indifferent to struggling voters.
In last month’s election, New Democracy promised to take climate change seriously.
It has boosted Greece’s electricity production from renewable sources, and promises more increases by the end of the decade, steeply reducing Greece’s carbon footprint.
Also among its promises are to plant 20 million new trees covering 16,500 hectares (40,770 acres) by 2025, and conduct fire prevention cleanings in 260 forests.
While wooded land is constitutionally protected from construction, denuded it is vulnerable to rezoning. The lack of a land registry clearly marking public forests may have enabled unscrupulous individuals to introduce ambiguity by arson. New Democracy’s commitment to completing the national land registry is another key environmental promise.
Yet even in this government, there is vacillation. New Democracy last year attempted to relax zoning laws that prevent construction in Natura wildlife preserves. In 2014, it attempted to allow construction near shorelines, forbidden by the constitution. While encouraging industrial investments in wind and solar energy, it has done little to install net metering in homes, encouraging the spread of photovoltaic panels on four million household roofs – and this despite evidence that last year’s record production of renewable energy in Europe was led by consumers.
Given the rapidly encroaching effects of climate change, many experts believe that Greece’s policymakers do not have the luxury to appease all constituencies.
As Dimitris Ibrahim, head of World Wildlife Fund Greece, told me, “Climate change policy cannot be about dilemmas. All the solutions are necessary because we have to change everything.”