Brief on Greek Forest Fires July 27,2023

Posted on August, 04 2023

While forest fires are very common in Mediterranean countries, and indeed are a part of the natural cycle of Mediterranean ecosystems, often times their expand and intensity surpasses the ecosystems’ resilience and seriously affects society and economy. Climate change impacts and the spatial expansion of human settlements and infrastructures orchestrate to increase the complexity and intensity of the phenomenon. The 2023 fire season has started very badly for Greece: While still at the middle of the season, areas devastated by fires are already above the annual average, while fires as the one in Rhodes have seriously affected the local economy and caused international interest. In the following note, the key facts of this year’s fire season (as of August 2nd) are presented.

Overall situation 

  • End of July is just in the middle of the fire season in Greece, and this year’s fire season looks really nasty. We have experienced hundreds of fire incidents that have already led to an overall burnt area of over 50K hectares. Most of this area refers to sites of natural vegetation.  
  • The size of the burnt area might sound small if compared with fires in other ecosystems, but is very substantial once the size of the country and the fragmented –islandic- character of the Mediterranean landscape are factored in. Our outmost concern is with fires in islands and within protected areas. 
  • Fires in the vicinity of Attica, in Rhodes, in Corfu, in Evia and in Magnisia have drawn most of the public’s attention in Greece and abroad and have spurred an intense public discussion. Rightly so as they are severely affecting ecosystems that are valuable in ecological terms and closely bound to human well-being. Unfortunately, many of these fires are still ravaging. 
  • Historically, the worst of the fire seasons is usually reserved for the mid of August/beginning of September. It is the period that the heat is still high and the vegetation has become completely dried from the Summer. We are on alert on the fear that this fire season will give many more, and much more serious, incidents. 
  • The response of the State is clearly inadequate and ineffective ref these incidents. The Greek State remains focused on a culture of brut suppression with all attention going to the intense mobilization of fire brigade staff, machinery and air fleet, and null attention going to actually understanding and managing the phenomena. This of course goes counter to all expert advice and advocacy, including our own positions we have been documenting and advocating for.
  • The State’s stance towards fire management is also leading to an over-exhaustion of staff, that produces huge risks to human life. 
  • Within this dismal situation, we see a sign that might be hopeful for the future: Public dialogue is finally centred around the issues we (WWF Greece and experts) have been advocating for during the past years. Combined with the huge toll the fires are taking on tourism, we believe we can now be more effective in pushing for meaningful changes in our fire prevention/suppression system. 

Impact on Protected Sites and Species  

  • To date, twelve Protected Areas have been affected by the fires: seven Natura 2000, four Wildlife Refugees and one National Park. 
  • Some of these twelve P.As have been impacted to a large extent, while some others only marginally, at their limits. It is hard to have a clear estimation as most of the fires affecting P.As are still active. We will need to carefully assess their impact once the suppression operations are completed. 
  • Apart from P.As, many of the fires (as for example in the island of Rhodes) have affected old growth forests that are ecologically important albeit under no specific protection status, while many others (as in the islands of Corfu and Evia) are devastating sites that have been repeatedly burnt the last 20 years leading to the exhaustion of their natural rehabilitation capacity. 
  • As far as impacts on species are concerned, these also need to be carefully assessed in the coming weeks and months. Fires introduce landscape changes that interact with species’ ecology in complex ways and definite estimations on species impacts are not always easy. 
  • This said: 
  • Many of the fires have affected important sites of maquis vegetation where threatened and/or endemic reptile species habitat. These species lack the speed/agility to evade fires which usually take a big toll on their populations. Many of these species are critically endangered. 
  • The Fallow Deer, as all wild herbivorous species in Greece, is a species with very narrow distribution and facing many threats. It had a very healthy and growing population in Rhodes that has been seriously affected by the fires. 

Impact on people and society 

  • Forest fires present an obvious civil risk to communities living in the vicinity of fire incidents. It is estimated that 120.000 people habituate the municipalities that have been affected. 
  • An additional 19.000 tourists have been evacuated only in the fire in Rhodes. 
  • To date, about six people have lost their lives and dozens have been injured. 
  • Nearly 400 buildings have been affected. Almost 70% of them are totally destroyed or in need of full reconstruction.
  • Forest vegetation is the key protective factor for downstream communities against floods. Following this season’s fires we expect large flood risks in many areas, especially in the vicinity of Attica and Rhodes. 
  • Forest fires –especially in the vicinity of large cities- also have strong microclimatic effects. These combine with climate change impacts to often make living conditions unbearable. 
  • This year’s fires, especially in Rhodes, have showcased the close links between fires, the climate crisis and communities that live off tourism.  

Links to the climate crisis

  • In the Mediterranean, the climate crisis impacts are already very clear: Among these, more abrupt and geographically focused precipitation, longer periods of drought, longer heatwaves and in general more often extreme weather events.  
  • These C.C. impacts increase the severity of fires and the chance that a fire incident grows into an uncontrollable way  (or finally to megafire)
  • The climate crisis did not start the fires burning forest lands in Greece. It does however fuel the conditions for their occurrence (longer and more frequent heatwaves) and exacerbates the flammability of forests, thereby favouring fast-developing fires (in all the Mediterranean). Wildfires during prolonged heatwaves should have been anticipated and proper preventive measures should have been planned and implemented months ago.  

WWF Greece work on fires 

WWF Greece has been employed with the issue of forest fires since its establishment 31 years ago. Through the years we have worked on a large number of projects with a steady focus on advocating for the improvement of the national forest protection system, the development and piloting of novel solutions, the provision of support to volunteer groups and small NGOS, the safeguarding and restoration of burnt sites. 

Our current portfolio includes the following lines of work: 

  • Advocacy work for the improvement of the national forest protection system
  • Monitoring of rehabilitation in important sites burnt in the past and promotion of necessary measures 
  • Improvement of the national system for the rehabilitation of burnt sites (pilot rehabilitation projects, seed collections) 
  • Piloting and mainstreaming of prescribed burning as a prevention tool
  • Provision of support to volunteer firefighting groups
  • Work with funders to leverage funds for priority projects run by other NGOs

Every year we implement rapid mapping and ecological assessments of the sites burned during the fire season. These assessments are based on a combination of field and desktop work. According to the results of our assessments we promote proposals for necessary rehabilitation measures or other needed actions. When necessary we also modify our project portfolio to include actions in support of the above. 

At this moment and as the fires evolve we work to mobilize and organize urgent support for volunteer firefighting groups. 

Explanatory note: Forest fires in Greece and the Mediterranean 

Fires in Mediterranean Ecosystems 

  • Fire is a natural part of the ecology of Mediterranean ecosystems (i.e. Mediterranean basin, California, Chile, etc). Forest species are adapted to fire and indeed some of them rely on it for their regeneration and expansion. 
  • Mediterranean communities have developed through thousands of years of co-existence with fire. The challenge we face today has to do with the increased frequency and intensity of fires that exhausts the capacity of natural regeneration and severely affects human communities. 
  • In an already highly fragmented landscape of habitats, fires may have a critical role in disintegrating connectivity and species’ viability. 
  • Our contemporary challenges are the vector result of multiple causes: Ill designed spatial planning that allows the encroachment of settlements and infrastructures into natural space, the retrat of activities that have traditionally contributed to the management of forest fuels (forestry, stock breeding), the alienation of communities from the terms of coexistence with natural space, the focus of governments in brut reaction instead of long-term planning based on science-based prevention and management. 
  • The climate crisis is amplifying the effects of these factors that already in play for over 3 decades. 

Fires in Greece: 

  • We see (23year average) 10K fires incidents per year. 60-100 incidents per day during the fire season is “the normal”.  
  • 95% are human driven. Around 60% (40% +20% από τα άγνωστα) from negligence.
  • 90% of the annual arrests of Fire Brigade is due negligence
  • Many fires emerge from energy infrastructures. Most come from negligent casual behaviour (burning farming residuals, tossing cigarettes, farming machinery faults, bbqs, bee keepers etc). 
  • Bar the causes, the next basic problem in Greece is the lack of forest management (forest fuels), the focus to suppression, the inadequate analysis and countering of causes, and the imbalance between suppression and prevention
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