Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated in Greece over the past week as uncontrollable wildfires ravage the country.
Constantia Dimoglidou, a spokeswoman for the Greek police, said that 30,000 people had been rescued from areas beset by wildfires, describing it as the “biggest fire evacuation ever in Greece.”
In the past week, firefighters have been struggling to contain up to 80 wildfires on multiple islands, including popular tourist destinations. “We are at war — completely focused on the fires,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said during a Parliament debate on Monday. “Over the coming days and weeks, we must remain on constant alert.”
Croatia, Turkey and Egypt have sent help to assist Greece in battling its wildfires.
What is happening in Greece?
Wildfires at multiple locations in Greece over the past seven days have caused tens of thousands of people to be evacuated from their homes and hotels. Strong winds caused small fires to spread fast last week, forcing tourists and residents to flee for safety.
Over the weekend, some 19,000 people on the island of Rhodes were evacuated and brought to nearby shelters and schools, Greek fire officials said. Of those evacuated, 16,000 were transported to safety by land and at least 3,000 by sea. After firefighters spent days containing wildfires at seaside towns southeast of Athens last week, the flames were reignited by strong winds on Thursday.
The islands of Corfu and Evia are also experiencing wildfires, while the island of Crete was reported to have an “extreme risk” of wildfires by local authorities. On Crete, 2,500 people have already been evacuated.
Footage on social media shows hundreds of people evacuating from hotels by foot, carrying small amounts of personal items in their hands. “It was a real ordeal for us and the kids,” Dan Jones, a father of four who was evacuated from a hotel in Rhodes, told Yahoo News. “It happened on day one of our holiday. We noticed the fire approaching our hotel. We grabbed what we could with our children and walked towards the beach.” Jones described having to wade through neck-deep water with his young children to reach a boat for safety.
Meanwhile, countless animals have died after wildfires scorched miles of land, incinerating everything in sight. In one shelter, dozens of animals that were receiving care burned after fires consumed the shelter and its nearby buildings.
What caused these fires?
While it wasn’t immediately unclear what started the wildfires, extremely high temperatures and dry conditions have been blamed. In Corfu, however, local officials are claiming that wildfires on the island were caused by an arsonist. Giorgos Mahimaris, the mayor of North Corfu, said he made the assessment after visiting three locations where fires had broken out.
Is this related to climate change?
“Greece has been experiencing hot and dry conditions — this dries out the vegetation creating a fuel source, when an ignition and heat source, like lightening [sic] strike, people using disposable BBQs or discarded cigarettes starts a fire it will spread this is exacerbated by strong winds which fan the flames and cause it to spread further,” Emma Hill, associate head of the School of Energy, Civil Engineering and the Environment at Coventry University, England, told Yahoo News via email.
“The strong winds are also making it difficult for firefighters to get the blaze under control as they keep needing to retreat. Or the fire blows into an area where fire breaks have not yet been put in place,” Hill added.
Will we continue to see this problem every year?
This isn’t the first year Greece has experienced wildfires. In 2021, the country had its worst heat wave in 30 years. Mitsotakis described it as a “nightmarish summer” as 1,000 firefighters were deployed to control fires.
“The climate change projections show we are highly likely to get hotter, drier summers, punctuated by extremes of temperature, heat waves and drought, which will likely be more frequently experienced, longer, and more severe when they do occur,” Hill said. “This will create conditions that increase the risk of wildfires.”