The region of Kassandra, Halkidiki, is one of the fire-prone areas in Greece. In the wake of the extreme weather phenomena that have hit the country in recent months, a comprehensive approach involving prevention and civic education is now considered necessary.
Afytos, Sunday August 20, 2023. Alekos and his colleagues spend the last days of their summer vacation in Halkidiki. Their two-week retreat began on the green island of Samothrace; after short stays in the cities of Alexandroupolis and Kavala, their trip culminated in picturesque Kassandra, a region famous for its natural beauty and historical significance.
As he contemplates the peaceful landscape that surrounds him, he admits to feeling a strange feeling of guilt at having “been lucky in the midst of such misfortune”. “We left the Evros region on Saturday morning August 19 and arrived in Afytos in the evening of the same day. We were shocked to hear on the news that an extreme wildfire broke out the same day in Alexandroupolis, killing dozens. It’s hard to believe that the beautiful forests we were hiking in yesterday no longer exist.
The summer of 2023 has been nightmarish for the Greeks. The deadly forest fires which broke out on the island of Rhodes and in the region of Evros respectively in July and August caused dozens of victims, but also incalculable losses in terms of cultural heritage, since many churches, monasteries and other historic sites turned to ashes. The long-term ecological impact has not yet been calculated.
Is climate change responsible for deadly summers?
In recent years, extreme wildfires have turned Greek summers into a disastrous season. Forest fires in Greece are not a new phenomenon. In fact, they have long been part of the country’s history, playing a vital role not only in the formation of its ecosystem and landscape physiology, but also in the outcome of historical wars and battles. In his study on the History of fires in Greece LG Liakos (2015:3-13) mentions that natural forest fires were a fairly common phenomenon throughout ancient Greece, reflected even in the verses of the Iliad, where Homer sings of “a devouring fire (that) falls on d ‘thick forests’ (Λ. 155).
A previous study by C. Moulopoulos (1935 ) describes how the coastal area of the Greek peninsula, from Albania to the Peloponnese and from the Peloponnese to Chalkidiki, was once covered with rich forests of “Aleppo pine”, a tree native to the Mediterranean region, the resin from which is often used to flavor “retsina”, a traditional Greek wine. According to the same source, today “Maquis training” that dominates the Mediterranean coasts is mainly the result of human-caused forest fires, sparked by people’s attempts to increase the production of grass for grazing animals, but also to increase the size of land that can be cultivated.
In other words, extreme wildfires have always existed, but what seems to concern scientists today is their frequency, intensity and scale. In his Special report on climate change and land , released earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) draws a direct link between climate change and extreme weather events. Measuring the impact of a warming world on people, land and climate, the IPCC findings indicate that “climate change plays an increasing role in determining wildfire regimes alongside human activity, with future climate variability expected to increase the risk and severity of wildfires globally.” many regions.
Over the summer, attributing all disasters to climate change became a convenient excuse for Greek politicians, who toured the affected areas, blaming uncontrollable force not only for the country’s extreme wildfires, but also for flooding catastrophic events that followed.
Is climate change the problem? “Only partly,” replies Palaiologos Palaiologou, forest fire researcher and analyst, assistant professor of forest protection at the Agricultural University of Athens. “I often hear people and the media refer exclusively to climate change as the root of every problem, when in reality this issue is much more complex.”
Palaiologou is part of the Greek team of experts working on the FIRE RESOLUTION project, a 4-year initiative (2021-2025) funded under the European Union’s H2020 research and innovation programme. The aim of FIRE-RES is to develop a holistic and integrated fire management strategy to effectively and efficiently address extreme wildfires in Europe across 11 living laboratories and thanks to his Innovative actions . By taking into account social, economic, cultural and ecological dimensions, the project intends to minimize the damage caused by forest fires and maximize the benefits. Palaiologou and colleagues’ work focuses on identifying populations at risk from wildfires via a simulation-based system and involves collecting, organizing, and analyzing basic spatial data related to social properties and biophysics of fuel management areas.
Interviewed by OBCT, Palaiologou underlines the importance of “civic knowledge” when it comes to forest fires: “One might wonder why, in a country prone to fires like Greece, the public is so little aware of this phenomenon. There is a need to take a comprehensive approach to this topic, starting with education. Every time we visit schools, and we do so frequently, we realize that students know very little about extreme wildfires and that sometimes the information they get is wrong. For example, immediate reforestation is often presented as the best action after a forest fire, but this is not always the case. Certain prerequisites need to be considered; time, space and circumstances are extremely important.”
Drawing on evidence-based practices, FIRE-RES aspires to make good use of the knowledge gained to create repeatable models that can help identify, prevent and manage extreme wildfires in different regions based on certain characteristics. One of the areas where the project is implemented is on the Kassandra peninsula in Halkidiki.
OBCT spoke with Margarita Bachatourian, Chief Forester of Kassandra: “The novelty of this project lies in its innovative fuel management methods. It has a research-based methodology, applied to scientifically selected regions, aimed at increasing our ability to predict and prevent wildfires based on certain evidence-based criteria. It also allows us to understand where further investigation is needed. Additionally, the project was designed to be profitable, providing space to explore, among other things, self-financing prospects.
Bachatourian emphasizes that the positive results of the simulation-based evidence proposed by the project are already translating into concrete figures. She also sees added value in the warm reception this initiative has received from the local population: “We receive applications from people asking us to include their areas in our scope of work. This means that residents are aware of the positive impact and naturally want to be part of it.
This material is published within the framework of the “FIRE-RES” project co-funded by the European Union (EU). The EU is in no way responsible for the information or opinions expressed in the project. Responsibility for the content lies solely with OBC Transeuropa. Access the FIRE-RES page