Greek Island, New Epicenter of Europe’s Catastrophic Summer


EVIA, Greece — Amid twisted cages and scorched trees, Harilaos Tertipis emerged from his dilapidated barn dragging the charred corpses of his sheep – burned in the forest fires that swept Greece.

“I would have,” he said, if the survivors of his herd had huddled together on a roadside hill below, rattles on their necks and their legs singing, instead of running home to protect his family and home. Don’t be here now.”

On Wednesday, fires in the northern parts of Evia, Greece’s second largest island, destroyed more than 120,000 acres of pine forest, razed homes and displaced hundreds of people. They brought aid from more than 20 countries and were declared “a natural disaster of unprecedented proportions” by the Greek prime minister.

Fueled by a record-breaking heatwave reaching 46 degrees Celsius, or 115 degrees Fahrenheit, the fires have sparked political accusations, economic disasters, and biblical scenes of destruction.

But they seem more like another unavoidable episode of extreme weather caused by Europe’s man-made climate change, rather than a haphazard act of God. scientists have concluded that it is now irreversible.

Europe has always seen itself as a climate leader, vowing last month to cut emissions by 55 percent over the next decade, describing it as “or a pause” for the planet.before reaching tipping points of no return

But a series of disasters this summer has left many wondering if this tipping point has come, and made them realize that climate change is no longer a distant threat to future generations, but an immediate scourge that affects rich and poor countries alike.

Beyond the fires raging in America’s west or inside Turkey and AlgeriaAlmost no corner of Europe has been unaffected by an astonishing series of disasters, whether by fire, flood or heat.

The sweltering temperatures have caused forest fires in Sweden, Finland and Norway. Once in a thousand years flood in germany, Belgium, Switzerland and the Netherlands killed at least 196 people. Places in Italy rose more than 118 degrees this week, with parts of the country variously scorched by fires, battered by hailstorms or flooded.

“It’s not just Greece,” said Vasilis Vathrakoyiannis, spokesperson for the Greek fire service. “The entire European ecosystem.”

But the shifting epicenter of the natural disaster fell on Evia, a densely forested island northeast of Athens that was once the capital of the consequences of a warming planet, once best known for its beekeepers and resin producers, olive groves and seaside resorts.

This week, acres of burnt hillsides and fields are covered in snow-covered white ashes as firefighters scramble to put out the re-igniting fires and helicopters pour seawater to put out the blazing blazes.

I passed winding roads filled with fallen trees and electrical wires. The smoke was low, like a thick mist. The trunks of smashed trees were still smoldering, and the beekeepers’ hive boxes looked like burnt-out stands abandoned in empty fields. Miles away from the fires, the smoke still left a bitter taste in my mouth. Ash wandered through cafes, where waiters were constantly watering the tables and the sun’s heavy mist filling with a sickly orange hue.

“We lived in heaven,” said Babis Apostolou, 59, with tears in her eyes as she gazed at the charred land surrounding her village, Vasilika, at the northern end of Evia. “Now it’s hell.”

This week, the fires covered new ground. In the southern Peloponnese, where forest fires killed more than 60 people in 2007, a long fire pierced forests and homes, causing the evacuation of more than 20 villages. However, many Greeks refused to leave their homes.

When police told 59-year-old Argyro Kypraiou, who lives in the village of Evia in Kyrinthos, on Saturday, to evacuate, he stayed. A garden hose battled the flaming pinecones and flames in the air as the trees across the street blazed. When the water was gone, he responded to the fire with branches.

“If we had gone, the houses would have burned,” he said across the still smoldering valley. A truck rolled over and the driver leaned out the window and shouted at him that there was another fire in the field behind his house. “We continue to put out the fire,” he shouted. “We have nothing else to do”

Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis described the last days as “among the most difficult days for our country in decades” and promised to compensate the victims and reforest the land. Residents in Evia’s dried-up north complained that the government wasn’t flying the dripping planes fast enough to them or that they had waited too long to seek help from the European Union.

Greece’s attorney general has ordered an investigation into whether criminal activity is fueling the fires, perhaps to clear the land for zoning. Many here blamed the mysterious arsonist for starting the fire.

“This is arson,” said Mr Apostolou. “I heard they wanted to put in wind turbines.”

Mr. Tertipis said, “I hope those who set these fires will suffer as much as my animals.”

But it was also possible that pointing the arsonists was a result of a sense of powerlessness and the need to blame someone—anyone—for a crisis that at least some admitted was everyone’s fault.

“We all have to make changes,” said 28-year-old Irini Anastasiou, who expects fires to continue worldwide as the planet warms. He looked out of the front desk of his now-empty hotel in Pefki, one of the hardest-hit cities, and saw an opaque wall of haze above the sea.

“Usually, you can see clearly beyond the mountains,” he said. “You can’t see anything anymore.”

The inhabitants of Evia did their best. In the town of Prokopi, volunteer firefighters set up a base at the Forest Museum (“focused on man and his relationship with the forest”).

Hundreds of boxes full of supplies for the displaced smashed the log cabin. They were brimming with crackers, cereal, and granola bars. Soft piles of children’s and adult diapers stretched out to the windows. The boxes held medications and burn creams, aloe vera, Flamigel, hydrogel, and Flogo Instant Calm Spray under a sign promoting TWIG, the Transnational Woodland Industries Group.

An international group of emergency workers stepped out of the cabin. Some of the 108 firefighters sent by Romania worked in coordination with Greek Army officials and local authorities to put out the flames. Some volunteers went out to cut down trees with chainsaws, while those who returned leaned against a wall of bottled water and wondered what had gone wrong.

Ioannis Kanellopoulos, 62, blamed heavy snowfall during the winter months, breaking off many branches and causing too much kindling on the forest floor. But the intense heat didn’t help.

“The shadow was 113 degrees when the fire broke out,” he said.

He said the previous benchmark for destruction in the area was the 1977 fire. This fire greatly overshadowed him and guaranteed that he would not be overcome for years.

“There is nothing left to burn,” he said.

“This is not California,” added his 52-year-old friend, Spiros Michail.

Having nothing left to burn is the island’s common refrain. The crux of the terrible joke nature plays on them.

But that wasn’t true. There was more to burn.

At night the fires came back, appearing like Chinese lanterns on the dark hills in the distance. Fires burned along the roadside like ghostly campsites.

Stylianos Totos, a forest ranger, stood erect as he peered through his binoculars on a hillside near Ellinika.

“How do we get to it?” he called to his colleague in a truck carrying more than a ton of water. He worried that the wind would change direction from east to west and feed the fire with fresh pines. Just before 9pm on Tuesday evening, one of the small flames flared up, illuminating the entire wasteland and the twisted branches around it. “Andrea!” she cried. “Call in.”

But any help and any change in global behavior had come too late for Mr. Tertipis and his pack.

Mr. Tertipis, 60, who lost his mother in a fire in 1977 and has a permanent scar on his left arm, returned from his home to his barn before dawn on Sunday. The fire had consumed half of his herd, but only a few dozen meters away, a plush green pine tree and a lush field remained untouched.

“That’s it, you live or die in five minutes,” he said, “and the fever is always changing.”

For two days she could not answer the phone and do nothing but cry. Then she began to clean, walking through the ruins with overshoes, dragging loads using a sled she made from a hook and a broken refrigerator door.

He had raised animals all his life and said he had no choice but to continue, no matter how unfavorable the weather around him.

“Things may have changed,” he said with a shrug. “What are you going to do? Just give up?”

Niki Kitsantonis Contributed to reporting from Evia.


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