By Konstantinos Haidas
London, United Kingdom
In August of 2021, over 58 major wildfires engulfed multiple regions throughout Greece in the worst heatwave they have faced in roughly 30 years. Authorities battled nearly 100 active blazes every day. Large areas of Greece burn almost every summer, but what set the wildfires of this summer apart was the explanation by the Greek state of why the fires had started. In early August, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said, “the climate crisis is here,” and that the fires demonstrated “the reality of climate change.” These wildfires have had a significant effect on Greek society and Greece’s environment; they have been labelled by Mitsotakis as “the worst ecological disaster” that Greece has seen in decades.
The Greek government has been criticized for their response to the wildfires, as some believe they failed to effectively respond to the dire situation due to the lack of a prevention plan. After decades of privatization, austerity, vast military spending, and severe underinvestment in the civil protection authorities, the state’s ability to adequately safeguard citizens has faded. The underfunding of the forest preservation services resulted in limited operational capabilities during the fires.
At the same time as wildfires started on Evia—Greece’s second largest island after Crete— another fire was sparked at Varibobi in Athens, attracting the attention and resources of the government. Inadequate firefighting forces were sent to Evia, resulting in mass destruction by the fire. In Northern Evia, just two firefighting planes were sent on the day the fire started. A large portion of villagers in Evia live in harmony with nature and the forest; they extract resin from the trees, produce honey from the beehives and profit from tourism. The local economy depends on the health of the forest, and many residents are struggling to rebuild their lives and are battling unemployment. Across the island, around 840 families depend on tapping resin to make a living. According to experts, the forest will be green once again in 10 years, but the resin collection process will not continue for 25 years at the least. Additionally, resin-tapping is a skill that is taught through generations of families, so the heritage of this process may disappear with the lack of practice. The peoples’ trust in the government is in short supply.
Many were ordered to evacuate the area but most remained in Evia, staying behind to defend their property. They circled the perimeter of their villages, spraying pesticide in attempts to put out the fires or to simply minimize the spread and damage. A quarter of a million acres of forest were destroyed, entire mountains of pine forests were reduced to bare, blackened stumps, and many plantations and vineyards were decimated. Normally, the soil of the forest absorbs the water from winter rains, but with so much of the forest destroyed, winter floods are inevitable in the future.
From these wildfires, many are taking away the message that local communities should be more empowered to protect their environment, and it is essential to seek a greater engagement of civil society and reset the balance of power between the state and the citizens.