Greek Island Is New Epicenter of Europe’s Summer of Calamity
EVIA, Greece – Amid twisted cages and burnt trees, Harilaos Tertipis emerged from his crumbling stables dragging the charred corpses of his sheep – burned, like so many others, in the raging forest fires across Greece.
As the survivors of his herd gathered on a hill by the side of a road below, the bells on their necks ringing and their legs scorched, he said if he had stayed with his animals instead of rushing home. him to protect his family and his home, don’t be here now.
On Wednesday, fires around northern Evia, Greece’s second largest island, had destroyed more than 120,000 acres of pine forest, razed houses and displaced hundreds of people. They have provided aid from more than 20 countries and have been declared “a natural disaster of unprecedented magnitude” by the Greek Prime Minister.
The fires, fueled by a record-breaking heat wave that touched temperatures of up to 46 degrees Celsius, or 115 degrees Fahrenheit, sparked political recriminations, economic catastrophe and biblical scenes of destruction.
But they seem less a random act of God than another inevitable episode of extreme weather conditions in Europe brought on by man-made climate change that scientists have now concluded to be irreversible.
Europe has always seen itself as a climate leader, pledging last month to cut emissions by 55% over the next decade and calling it a “turning point” for the planet “before reaching points of irreversible tipping “.
But a series of disasters this summer has left many wondering whether that tipping point is already there, making it clear that climate change is no longer a distant threat to future generations, but an immediate scourge affecting rich and poor nations alike.
Beyond the fires that raged in the American West, or in Turkey and Algeria, virtually no corner of Europe has been spared a bewildering array of calamities, be they fires, flooding or heat.
Stifling temperatures have sparked forest fires in Sweden, Finland and Norway. Previously, one-time floods in a millennium in Germany, Belgium, Switzerland and the Netherlands killed at least 196 people. Places in Italy hit more than 118 degrees this week, while parts of the country have been variously burned by fire, battered by hailstorms or inundated by flooding.
“It’s not just Greece,” said Vasilis Vathrakoyiannis, spokesman for the Greek fire department. “It’s the whole European ecosystem.
But the moving epicenter of the natural disaster has now descended on Evia, a densely forested island northeast of Athens, once best known for its beekeepers and resin producers, olive groves and seaside resorts, and now the capital. consequences of global warming.
This week, as firefighters rushed to put out the fires and helicopters dropped seawater to quench the flames, acres of scorched hills and fields lay beneath white ash, as if dusted with snow.
I drove on winding roads riddled with fallen trees and electric wires. The smoke hung low, like a thick fog. The mutilated tree trunks were still smoking, and the beekeepers’ hives looked like burnt end tables abandoned in empty fields. Miles away from the fires, the smoke still left a pungent taste in my mouth. Ash drifted around cafes where waitresses constantly watered tables and the sun drenched the dense haze with a sickly orange hue.
“We lived in paradise,” said Babis Apostolou, 59, with tears in his eyes as he gazed at the charred earth surrounding his village, Vasilika, at the northern tip of Evia. “Now this is hell.”
This week, the fires have covered new ground. In the southern Peloponnese, where forest fires killed more than 60 people in 2007, a long stretch of fire ravaged forests and homes, causing more than 20 other villages to be evacuated. But many Greeks refused to leave their homes.
Extreme weather conditions
When police asked Argyro Kypraiou, 59, from the Evia village of Kyrinthos to evacuate on Saturday, she stayed. As the trees across the street blazed, she fought the aerial barrage of burning pine cones and flames with a garden hose. When the water ran out, it pushed back the fire with branches.
“If we had left, the houses would have burned down,” she said in front of the still steaming ravine. A truck passed and the driver leaned out the window, shouting at him that there was another fire in the field behind his house. “We continue to put out the fires,” she shouted back. “We have no other job.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Greek Prime Minister, called the past few days “among the most difficult for our country in decades” and pledged to compensate the afflicted and reforest the land. Residents of the ravaged north of Evia complained that the government had failed to get them to fly water-jetting planes fast enough or that it had waited too long to ask for help from the European Union .
Greece’s top prosecutor has ordered an investigation to determine whether criminal activity could have sparked the fires, possibly to clear land for development. Many here have blamed mysterious arsonists for starting the fire.
“It’s arson,” Apostolou said. “I had heard that they wanted to install wind turbines.
Mr Tertipis said: “I hope the person who started these fires will suffer as much as my animals.
But it was also possible that pointing fingers at the arsonists stemmed from a sense of helplessness and the need to blame someone – anyone – for a crisis that at least some admitted was the one. everyone’s fault.
“We all need to make changes,” said Irini Anastasiou, 28, who expected fires to keep rolling around the world as the planet warms. She watched from the reception of her now empty hotel in Pefki, one of the hardest hit towns, and saw a wall of opaque mist above the sea.
“Usually you can see clearly through the mountains,” she said. “Now you can’t see anything. “
The people of Evia did what they could. In the commune of Prokopi, volunteer firefighters have set up shop at the Forest Museum (“centered on man and his relationship to the forest”).
Hundreds of boxes full of supplies for the displaced littered the log cabin. They were overflowing with crackers, cereals and granola bars. Soft piles of children’s and adult diapers were reaching the windows. The boxes contained medicine and burn creams, aloe vera, Flamigel, hydrogel and Flogo Instant Calm Spray, under a banner promoting TWIG, the transnational forest industries group.
An international group of rescuers operated from the cabin. Some of the 108 firefighters sent by Romania coordinated with Greek army officials and local authorities to put out the flames. Some volunteers came out with chainsaws to chop down trees while those returning leaned against a wall of bottled water and ruminated on what was wrong.
Ioannis Kanellopoulos, 62, blamed heavy snowfall during the winter for breaking so many branches and creating so much kindling on the forest floor. But the intense heat didn’t help.
“When the fire started it was 113 degrees in the shade,” he said.
He said the previous benchmark for destruction in the area was a 1977 fire. That fire had largely overshadowed it, he said, and guaranteed it would not be passed for years.
“There is nothing more to burn,” he said.
“It’s not California,” added his friend Spiros Michail, 52.
That there was nothing more to burn was the island’s common refrain. The punchline of the terrible joke nature had played on them.
But it was not true. There was a lot more to burn.
At night, the fires returned, appearing in the distance on the dark hills like Chinese lanterns. Fires burned along the roadsides like ghostly campsites.
Stylianos Totos, a ranger, stood erect as he gazed through binoculars at a hill near Ellinika.
“How do we get to that one,” he called his colleague in a truck carrying over a ton of water. He feared that the wind would change direction from east to west and feed the fire with fresh pines. Just before 9 p.m. Tuesday, one of the small flames ignited, illuminating all of the barren land and twisted branches that surrounded it. – Andrea, he cried. “Call him.”
But any help, and any change in overall behavior, had come too late for Mr. Tertipis and his flock.
Mr Tertipis, 60, who lost his mother and suffered permanent scars on his left arm in the 1977 fire, ran back from his home to his stables before dawn on Sunday. The fire had consumed half of his herd, but had left a plush green pine tree and a green field untouched only a few dozen yards away.
“It’s like that, in five minutes you live or die,” he said, adding that “the fire is changing all the time.”
For two days, he couldn’t answer the phone or do anything other than cry. Then he started cleaning up, wading through leftovers in galoshes, dragging load after load, using a sled he made from a hook and a broken refrigerator door.
He had been raising animals his whole life and he said he had no choice but to continue no matter how inhospitable the weather around him had become.
“Maybe things have changed,” he said with a shrug. “What are you going to do? Give up?”
Niki Kitsantonis contributed to Euboea reporting.
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