The region of Kassandra, Halkidiki, is one of the fire-prone areas in Greece. In the aftermath of the extreme weather phenomena that hit the country in the last months, a holistic approach involving prevention and civic education is now seen as necessary
Afytos, Sunday 20 August 2023. Alekos and his colleagues are spending the last days of their summer break in Halkidiki. Their two-week retreat started on the green island of Samothrace; after short stays in the cities of Alexandroupolis and Kavala, their journey culminated in picturesque Kassandra, a region famous for its natural beauty and historic significance.
Gazing at the peaceful scenery around him, he admits to experiencing a strange feeling of guilt for ‘being lucky amid such misfortune’. ‘We left the region of Evros on Saturday morning, August 19, and arrived in Afytos on the evening of the same day. We were shocked to hear on the news that an extreme wildfire broke on the very same day in Alexandroupolis, claiming dozens of lives. It is hard to believe that the beautiful forests where we were hiking just yesterday no longer exist’.
The summer of 2023 was a nightmarish one for Greeks. The deadly wildfires that broke on the island of Rhodes and in the Evros region in July and August, respectively, led to dozens of victims, but also incalculable losses in terms of cultural heritage, as many churches, monasteries, and other historic sites turned into ashes. The long-term ecological impact has yet to be calculated.
Is climate change to blamed for the deadly summers?
In the last years, extreme wildfires have turned Greek summers into a season of disaster. Wildfires in Greece are not a new phenomenon. In fact, they have long been part of the country’s history, playing a critical role not only in the formation of its ecosystem and physiology of landscapes, but also in the outcomes of historic wars and battles. In his study on the History of Burning in Greece , L.G. Liakos (2015:3-13) mentions that natural wildfires were quite a common phenomenon all over ancient Greece, reflected even in the verses of Iliad, where Homer sings of ‘consuming fire [that] falls upon thick woodlands’ (Λ. 155).
A previous study by C. Moulopoulos (1935 ) describes how the coastal zone of the Greek peninsula from Albania to the Peloponnese and from the Peloponnese to Halkidiki was in previous times covered in rich forests of the so-called ‘Aleppo pine’, a tree native to the Mediterranean region, the resin of which is often used to flavour ‘retsina’, a traditional Greek wine. According to the same source, today’s ‘Maquis formation’ that dominates Mediterranean coasts is mainly a result of human-induced wildfires, started by people’s attempts to enhance grass production for animals to browse, but also to increase the size of land that could be cultivated.
In other words, extreme wildfires have always existed, but what seems to be concerning scientists today is their frequency, intensity, and magnitude. In its Special Report on Climate Change and Land , published earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) makes a direct connection between climate change and extreme weather phenomena. Measuring the impact of a warming world on people, land, and climate, the IPCC findings indicate that ‘climate change is playing an increasing role in determining wildfire regimes alongside human activity, with future climate variability expected to enhance the risk and severity of wildfires in many regions’.
During the summer, attributing all disasters to climate change became a convenient excuse for Greek politicians, who toured the affected areas blaming an uncontrollable force not only for the extreme wildfires in the country, but also the catastrophic floods that followed.
Is climate change the problem? ‘Partly only’, answers Palaiologos Palaiologou, wildfire researcher and analyst, assistant professor of Forest Protection at the Agricultural University of Athens. ‘I often hear people and media outlets referring exclusively to climate change as the root of every problem, when in fact this issue is far more complex’.
Palaiologou is part of the Greek team of experts working on the FIRE-RES project, a 4-year initiative (2021-2025) funded under the European Union’s H2020 research and innovation programme. The aim of FIRE-RES is to develop a holistic and integrated fire management strategy to efficiently and effectively address Extreme Wildfire Events in Europe through 11 Living Labs and by means of its Innovation Actions . By taking into account social, economic, cultural, and ecological dimensions, the project intends to minimise the damage caused by wildfires and maximise the benefits. The work of Palaiologou and his colleagues focuses on the identification of populations at risk from forest fires via a simulation-based system, and entails the collection, organisation, and analysis of basic spatial data related to the social and biophysical properties of fuel management areas.
Interviewed by OBCT, Palaiologou highlights the importance of ‘civic knowledge’ when it comes to wildfires: ‘One may wonder why, in a fire-prone country like Greece, there is so little public awareness over this phenomenon. There is a need for a holistic approach to this topic, starting with education. Whenever we visit schools, and we do so frequently, we realise that students know very little about extreme wildfires and at times, the information that they get is false. For instance, immediate reforestation is often promoted as the best action after a wildfire, but this might not always be the case. There are preconditions that need to be examined; time, space, and circumstances are extremely important'.
Drawing upon evidence-based practices, FIRE-RES aspires to make good use of the knowledge gained to create replicable models that can help identify, prevent, and manage extreme wildfires in different regions based on certain characteristics. One of the areas where the project is being implemented is over the Kassandra Peninsula in Halkidiki.
OBCT talked to Margarita Bachatourian, Chief Forester of Kassandra: ‘The novelty of this project lies in its innovative methods of fuel management. It has a research-based methodology, applied to scientifically selected regions, aiming at increasing our ability to foresee and prevent wildfires based on certain evidence-based criteria. It also allows us to understand in which fields there is a need for further investigation. Moreover, the project has been designed to be cost-effective, providing space to explore, among others, self-funding prospects’.
Bachatourian stresses that the positive results of the simulation-based evidence offered by the project can already be seen in concrete figures. Furthermore, she sees value added in the warm welcome that this initiative has received by local population: ‘We receive applications of people asking us to include their areas in our scope of work. This means that locals are aware of the positive impact and naturally wish to be a part of it’.
This material is published in the context of the "FIRE-RES" project co-funded by the European Union (EU). The EU is in no way responsible for the information or views expressed within the framework of the project. Responsibility for the contents lies solely with OBC Transeuropa. Go to the FIRE-RES page
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