Wildfires ravage Athens as climate scientists sound the alarm

9 August 2021

A stark warning echoed on the mayor of Athens’ Instagram account on Friday just as wildfires engulfed the Greek capital’s northern neighbourhoods and foothills.

“Attention! In the next hours and days, we expect extreme winds that can worsen the situation due to continuing fires”, wrote Kostas Bakoyannis, Mayor of Athens  on social media. The blazes were forcing the closure of the city’s surrounding hills, from Lycabettus to the National Garden, he warned residents.

Just a few weeks ago, in a move hailed as southern Europe’s answer to climate change, the mayor foresaw such an emergency situation when he tasked Eleni Myrivili with devising solutions to cool down temperatures in the increasingly hot Greek capital.

The decision appears even more timely and urgent these days, as dozens of wildfires continue to scorch the earth and devour land across Greece, from the Peloponnese region to the islands of Evia and Crete.

Fuelled by Greece’s worst heatwave in three decades, the country could barely manage to contain the emergency in areas like Evia, Greece’s second biggest island,  just across from Athens, in the Aegean Sea.

Images showed wildfires engulfing Evia over the weekend, sowing destruction in their wake and turning forestland, trees and buildings into ashes.

The fires have forced some 2,000 residents to evacuate from Evia and other areas of Greece. Stoked by summer temperatures peaking up to 45 degrees Celsius, Europe’s southernmost country is ablaze, but is not alone.

Fires mirroring those seen in Greece are sweeping across the Southern Mediterranean and ravaging southern Turkey and Italy, North Macedonia and Albania.

Just one month after over 170 people lost their lives in Germany and Belgium when heavy rainfalls flooded their villages, southern Europe is suffocating by heat and wildfire smoke.

In a show of much needed solidarity, the European Union has sent some 1,300 rescuers along with fighter planes, helicopters and vehicles to help stretched national services contain the fires.

The EU calls the wildfires ‘unprecedented’, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that in the not-so-distant future summer blazes of this type will be the rule rather than the exception, scientists warn.

Climate change is funning the flames, say experts of the EU’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service. Although heatwaves alone cannot cause fires, “high temperatures coinciding with dry conditions is a big contributor to wildfire risk. Dry conditions include a lack of rainfall and drier-than-average soil”, CAMS experts wrote in a July wildfire report in the Northern Emisphere.

Sweeping away any remaining doubts about the climate change-fires connection, the latest International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, released today, notes that “observed trends in European mean and extreme temperatures cannot be explained without accounting for anthropogenic factors.”

In other words, human activity is having an irreversible and provable effect on our climate. The landmark study by the world’s leading climate body is both an indictment of human activity and a call to arms.

The IPCC forecasts that temperatures will peak above the previous 1.5 C degree Celsius threshold and that the warming process will take place more quickly and violently than previously estimated. In southern Europe drought, aridity and fire conditions will worsen as temperatures will climb above 2 degree Celsius.

Issued just as wildfires were turning the air unbreathable in Greece, the UN body urges governments to rethink climate strategies and devise more aggressive plans to avoid an environmental disaster.

The IPCC report “is a code red for humanity,” said UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres. “Global heating is affecting every region on Earth, with many of the changes becoming irreversible.”

“The IPCC report underscores that we can no longer afford to watch what is happening without taking immediate action,” said Dario Nardella, President of Eurocities and Mayor of Florence. “People have the capacity to adversely affect climate, but we also have the ingenuity to be better. This is a call to action for all who care about the health of our planet, and of future generations. Through initiatives such as the recently launched Mayors Alliance for the European Green Deal cities are demonstrating that we can deal with this crisis and that we are ready and willing to act now.”


Daniela Berretta Eurocities Writer