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Greece Gains on Wildfires, Faces Climate Change Criticism

A burnt mountain over a beach in Agia Anna village on Evia island, about 148 kilometers (92 miles) north of Athens, Greece, Aug. 10, 2021.
A burnt mountain over a beach in Agia Anna village on Evia island, about 148 kilometers (92 miles) north of Athens, Greece, Aug. 10, 2021.

Massive forest fires have gripped Greece for more than a week. The government has come under fierce criticism for failing to heed warnings of wildfires amid a protracted heat wave affecting not just Greece but the Balkans and southern Europe.

Some of the nearly 600 wildfires that have sparked across Greece, have been brought under control. But fresh ones flared on the island of Evia and in the Peloponnese, adding to the 62 evacuation orders authorities issued over the past week across the country.

Several mayors criticized a lack of aerial support in fighting the fires, despite the government's assurances earlier this year that it had set aside ample resources. But even before the fires began, environmental experts had warned of the pending danger

Those experts, including Costas Synolakis, a professor of natural hazards management, say the government in Athens has yet to grasp the extent of the threat of climate change.

“I think politicians are simply not prepared for the scale of devastation. Politicians need to start understanding that if we do not act, this is the new normal and perhaps it is already too late," Synolakis said. “What we need to do is stabilize the climate so that we do not see anything worse than what we see now.”

The warning follows Monday’s nationally televised address by Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

"The destruction in Evia and elsewhere blackens everyone's hearts.… And I first of all, apologize for any shortcomings shown by the state in its response," Mitsotakis said.

Mitsotakis pledged more than 500 million dollars to fund rebuilding, reforesting and compensation and said special inquiries would be set up to determine what went wrong and who should be held accountable.

Greece is not alone. It is suffering under the worst heat wave since 1987. The heat and drought, both linked to climate change, are fueling fires across Europe, from Turkey and Italy to Russia’s Siberia.

Greece has struggled to contain the hundreds of wildfires that have turned pristine pine forests into ash and forced about 60,000 people to flee. The government has said its main priority has been to save and protect lives.

More than 49,000 hectares have burned on Evia alone, according to European Union data. Hundreds of firefighters, among them soldiers, mountain rangers and volunteers from across Greece, Europe and the U.S. are fighting the blazes and watching for flare-ups.

At least three people have been arrested on suspicion of arson, but no charges yet have been filed.