Unprecedented Heat Sparks More Wildfires Across Greece

Around 4,500 hectares of olive groves have been burned in wildfires across the country. The government promises aid, but farmers want something else.

Cyprus (AP Photo)
By Costas Vasilopoulos
Aug. 14, 2023 15:25 UTC
1089
Cyprus (AP Photo)

The two weeks of heat­waves that boiled Greece in mid-July were fol­lowed by dozens of wild­fires break­ing out across the coun­try, burn­ing for­est and agri­cul­tural land and claim­ing human lives.

In many parts of the coun­try, tem­per­a­tures rose above 40 ºC for sev­eral days in a row, dry­ing out the land and cre­at­ing the per­fect con­di­tions for wild­fires to erupt.

Every day, I ven­ture into the groves around the vil­lage to assess the dam­age to the olive trees… Unfortunately, the fire has dealt a major blow to the area’s local econ­omy.- Yiorgos Tsakalios, Rhodes-based olive miller

It was an unprece­dented heat­wave that lasted 15 days, which had never been recorded before in the coun­try,” said mete­o­rol­o­gist Yiorgos Papavasiliou. After the first wave of high tem­per­a­tures, we observed the rapid increase in flam­ma­bil­ity already in the first few days. The strik­ing thing was that it affected almost the whole Mediterranean.”

According to ini­tial esti­mates, more than 50,000 hectares of for­est and crops, includ­ing 4,500 hectares of olive trees, were con­sumed by the wild­fires in the coun­try in July.

See Also:Olive Oil Producers in Greece Brace for Steep Production Decline

Western Attica, the region of Magnesia in cen­tral Greece, south­ern Evia, Rhodes in the Aegean Sea and Corfu in the Ionian Sea have all felt the fury of the cat­a­strophic fires.

Firefighters from sev­eral European Union coun­tries and Turkey arrived in Greece to assist their Greek coun­ter­parts in con­tain­ing the wild­fires.

Two deaths were reported in Magnesia, while a vol­un­teer fire­fighter in Rhodes suc­cumbed to res­pi­ra­tory prob­lems after strug­gling with the flames at the front.

On the small Aegean island of Karystos, a fire­fight­ing air­craft crashed into the hills while attempt­ing to drop water on the blaze burn­ing on the island from a low alti­tude. Both pilots were reported dead in the crash.

Rhodes, the largest island of the Dodecanese com­plex and a well-known tourist des­ti­na­tion, was among the Greek regions hit hard­est by the fires.

Burning for over 10 days, the flames destroyed houses in Asklipio and Gennadi vil­lages and charred large swathes of agri­cul­tural land, mainly in the cen­tral and east­ern parts of the island.

We are at war with fire,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said in an address to the Greek par­lia­ment. We have expe­ri­enced the dev­as­ta­tion in many areas and, unfor­tu­nately, most recently in Rhodes. The island has been hurt.”

According to the first offi­cial record­ing of the dam­age, the blaze on Rhodes con­sumed 50,000 olive trees, along with 2,500 domes­tic ani­mals and bee hives.

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Burned olive tree on Rhodes (Photo: Yiorgos Tsakalios)

Europe’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) pub­lished video footage depict­ing the burn scar of the wild­fire on Rhodes as seen from space.

Around 20,000 locals and tourists were evac­u­ated from impacted set­tle­ments like Kiotari and Asklipio and sev­eral tourist resorts in what was described as the largest evac­u­a­tion oper­a­tion the coun­try has ever seen.

In the moun­tain­ous vil­lage of Apollona in the cen­ter of the island, mill owner Yiorgos Tsakalios is count­ing the wounds inflicted on the area’s olive groves by the wild­fires.

Every day, I ven­ture into the groves around the vil­lage to assess the dam­age to the olive trees,” Tsakalios told Olive Oil Times.

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We almost com­pletely rely on our olive trees for a liv­ing since there are no other crops here, and this part of Rhodes is not touristy,” he added. Unfortunately, the fire has dealt a major blow to the area’s local econ­omy. Based on rough esti­mates, around 15,000 olive trees suc­cumbed to the flames in our area alone.”

Meanwhile, the gov­ern­ment announced that the country’s olive farm­ers impacted by the wild­fires are enti­tled to finan­cial com­pen­sa­tion of €160 per dam­aged olive tree.

Tsakalios, nev­er­the­less, argued that reha­bil­i­ta­tion mea­sures for the island’s olive groves would prove more con­struc­tive than any finan­cial back­ing.

The sup­port the gov­ern­ment promised is point­less,” he said. Just giv­ing money can­not bring back our trees, some of which were cen­turies old. The state must come up with a com­pre­hen­sive plan to restore our burned olive groves.”

What is more, deer roam Rhodes in large num­bers, and any young olive trees planted would have no chance of sur­viv­ing,” Tsakalios added. Wild plants and grass are not there after the fires, and the deer live on any­thing they can find now. There must be a hedge of some kind to keep them away.”

In the west­ern Peloponnese, fires broke out in four dif­fer­ent loca­tions in the munic­i­pal­i­ties of Pyrgos and Ancient Olympia. Several set­tle­ments were evac­u­ated as the flames con­sumed large swathes of coun­try­side and crops and came dan­ger­ously close to the Olympia archae­o­log­i­cal site.

The author­i­ties acti­vated the auto­mated fire extin­guish­ing sys­tem installed at the site in case the flames went out of con­trol.

The archae­o­log­i­cal site of Olympia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was pre­vi­ously threat­ened by the wild­fire of August 2021, which engulfed more than 5,000 hectares of olive trees in the area.

According to Yiorgos Georgopoulos, the mayor of the con­tem­po­rary town of Ancient Olympia, the water-bomb­ing air­craft already oper­at­ing in two other fires nearby were the rea­son the Olympia archae­o­log­i­cal site and the con­tem­po­rary town remained intact.

Hadn’t it been for the fires in Karoutes and Paliovarvasena, which had planes already in the air, the flames would have reached our set­tle­ment and the archae­o­log­i­cal site,” the mayor said. This is what saved us.”

Local award-win­ning pro­ducer Alexis Karabelas of AMG Karabelas, based near the archae­o­log­i­cal site of Olympia, said that the company’s estab­lish­ments nar­rowly escaped the fire.

The flames approached us to as close as 2 kilo­me­ters, but luck­ily the fire­fight­ers were able to con­tain them,” Karabelas told Olive Oil Times. It was a dread­ful expe­ri­ence.”

Other pro­duc­ers in the area out­lined wild­fires’ neg­a­tive, long-last­ing impact on the country’s olive oil indus­try.

We man­aged to steer clear of the July fire, but the fire of 2021 has almost put us out of busi­ness,” local pro­ducer and mill owner Giannis Gouvas told Olive Oil Times. The blaze con­sumed part of my mill and many olive groves in the area, includ­ing mine. I lost not only my olive trees but also my cus­tomers who were left with no olives to har­vest and mill.”

The state pro­vided some finan­cial help, but it can­not com­pen­sate us for the losses we have suf­fered,” he added. Any young olive trees planted would take years to grow.”



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