A losing battle to save the lungs of Athens as wildfires grip Greece

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In Agia Paraskevi, one of the villages dotted around Mount Panitha, just 15 miles north of Greece’s capital, Athens, we found a familiar sight: a woman standing in front of a burned house, its black, skeletal roof beams reaching imploringly into the smoldering sky as if begging for mercy. Tears streamed down her face as she contemplated what she lost. She cried softly in almost resigned despair. Greece is once again in the grip of wildfires, and this year they are worse than ever.

Hours earlier we were standing in the same village, talking to Nikos as he stood outside his home, eyeing the advancing smoke. He was spraying a thin stream of water through a skinny hosepipe, dousing parked cars and soaking the ground around his home, in what surely seemed a futile attempt to ward off the impending danger.

Nikos told me he had been doing this for two days. He had packed a bag with a few clothes and, along with his wife and their dog, was prepared to leave – if the authorities forced him to do so. “Only if someone puts a gun to my head,” he told me. Like so many in these villages, he had poured his life into this little house.

In the event, no such persuasion was needed. The police arrived to evacuate the village, and Nikos in tears, reluctantly did as he was told, leaving his house with just a little damp earth and the faintest of hopes to protect it.

This 300 square mile national park, filled with verdant forests and ancient archeological sites, is known as “the lungs of Athens,” and with good reason. As well as offering city dwellers a haven from the ancient city’s cloying summers, its vast woodlands perform the twin tasks of cleaning the polluted air and absorbing the intense heat that often grips the metropolis.

Now it is the home to a raging battle, as the emergency services try to repel more than 200 wildfires in Greece since Monday alone. By day the air is filled with smoke and the noise of sirens, the cries of villagers and rescue workers, and the insistent shudder of helicopter rotors, as firefighters attempt to quell the flames from above.

That air support is crucial, we were told, but only possible during daylight. Once night falls the choppers leave, but the heat remains, and the fires burn on.

One invisible foe is the wind, which can help ignite a blaze from almost nothing, and urge it on to devour fresh ground. “Last night was hell”, Kostas, a firefighter, told us. “The wind is our greatest enemy; nothing can be taken for granted.” On Thursday, as we prepared a live shot, we found this out for ourselves, as a small nearby fire suddenly reared into a ferocious blaze, forcing us to run.

As day breaks and helicopters rejoin the fight, the fires’ progress is etched into the hillside. A line of vivid green virgin forest abruptly ends, replaced by wide expanses of black, charred earth and the spindly carcasses of trees. Nothing is spared.

Similar fires are raging across Greece, and with so many frontlines there are simply not enough firefighters in the country to stop them. This week the fire brigade announced that the burned remains of 18 people had been found in a shack close to the Dadia Forest in Alexandroupoli in Evros. The fires the largest on record in the EU, according to the bloc.

The impact reaches further than the burned trees and homes. The immediate effects are obvious, you can feel them in the parched air scratching at your throat and stinging your eyes and see them in the blackened water cascading beneath you as you wash. Breathing is hard and the air is thick with acrid smoke.

Then there are the impacts that will be felt into the future: Dr Michalis Diakakis from the Faculty of Geology and Geo-Environment at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, told us that the loss of forests would raise the risks of flooding and landslides. Their role in cleaning the air and moderating the temperatures of neighboring Athens would be lost, and the impacts of climate change accelerated locally by their absence. Extreme heat is becoming the norm now, he told us.

Wildfires, which are often ignited by lightning strikes or human activity, are becoming more frequent because of human-caused climate change. Scientists found, for instance, that climate change made the extreme weather conditions that fueled the 2019-2020 destructive fire seasons in Australia 30% more likely to occur.

On Saturday, four days since the fire started, Parnitha was still ablaze with more virgin forest decimated. Once a carbon sink, it is now spewing ash and carbon into the atmosphere. A taxi driver described how he’s been washing his car three times a day to remove ash. He is 50km from Parnitha.

Alongside the wind, firefighters are also facing a more malign ally to the flames: incredibly, some of the fires seem to have been set deliberately. Police have made 79 arson related arrests so far. Disbelief is beginning to turn to anger among many Greeks. Dr Diakakis questioned the motives of those behind these acts. “I cannot believe these people are all simply arsonists,” he said. “Why are they doing this?”

A few hours after we watched Nikos evacuated from his village, we returned there. The flames had gone, leaving crumbling, ashen walls and seared rooftops behind them. But as we retraced our steps, we saw something that lifted our hearts: there was Nikos’ house, still standing. Its ring of water had done its job and the little home had been spared. It was a welcome glimmer of hope, but it will take more than a little water to protect Greece from these wildfires and those that will surely come again.a

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