Anger and evacuations as deadly wildfires char France and Greece

Hundreds of firefighters struggled for a third day Wednesday to contain France’s worst wildfire of the summer near the glitzy Riviera resort of Saint-Tropez which has forced thousands of residents and tourists to flee. Officials in the Var region confirmed the first death blamed on the blaze Wednesday morning and said about 20 others were being treated for smoke inhalation.

Firefighters were also battling deadly wildfires in Greece, and large blazes have ravaged parts of Turkey, Bulgaria, Albania, Northern Macedonia, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Israel, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco this year. Russia’s northern Siberia region has also been battered by a wildfire season that started early this year, in May, and blanketed a huge area in thick smoke that spread as far as the North Pole for the first time ever.

The Mediterranean basin has long faced seasonal wildfires linked to its dry and hot weather in the summer, but climate scientists warn they will become increasingly common because of man-made global warming. In Greece, there was mounting criticism over what many consider negligent fire control measures, leaving both the ecosystem and residents vulnerable.  


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“The battle is ongoing”

The French fire has scorched some 12,000 acres in a region known for its forests, vineyards and fauna since it broke out in the Plaine des Maures nature reserve on Monday evening.

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A photo provided by the fire brigade of the Var region shows a fireman battling a fire near Toulon, France, August 17, 2021. SDIS 83 via AP

Some 1,200 firefighters were deployed, using high-pressure hoses and water-bombing planes and helicopters to control the flames. High temperatures and strong winds forced local authorities to evacuate around 7,000 people from homes and campsites, the Var prefecture said Tuesday, many to the safety of municipal buildings and schools.

Among them were 1,300 people staying at a campsite in the village of Bormes-les-Mimosas down the coast from Saint-Tropez.

“We started smelling the smoke around 7:00 pm, then we saw the flames on the hill,” said Cindy Thinesse, who fled a campsite near Cavalaire on Monday evening. “We hesitated, but when we saw that, we decided to leave,” she told AFP.

“The coming hours will be absolutely decisive” for the firefighting effort, President Emmanuel Macron, who has been taking his summer break on the Mediterranean coast, said during a visit to first responders Tuesday evening.

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French President Emmanuel Macron (C), French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin (R) and President of Paca regional council Renaud Muselier (L) visit the SDIS (Departmental fire and rescue service) and firefighters headquarter in Le Luc, near Saint-Tropez, southern France, August 17, 2021. GUILLAUME HORCAJUELO/POOL/AFP/Getty

While Macron added that “the battle is ongoing and the fire has not yet been contained, stabilized,” he said that the firefighters’ courage had managed to “avoid the worst.” He spoke before the first fatality was confirmed in Var.

Authorities were counting the cost to the environment even as the fires still raged Tuesday.

“Half of the Plain des Maures nature reserve has been devastated,” Concha Agero, deputy director of the French Office of Biodiversity, said Tuesday.

“An alarm to instigate change”

In Greece, experts said the blazes cast a harsh light on the failure to prepare against and contain them, threatening irreversible damage to the country’s rich biodiversity.  

Climate scientists warn extreme weather and fierce fires will become increasingly common due to man-made global warming, heightening the need to invest in teams, equipment and policy to battle the flames.

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A wildfire burns next to a house in the village of Synterina, near Athens, on August 16, 2021. ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP/Getty

But “Greece has always struggled to protect its rich ecosystem,” Takis Grigoriou, who heads the climate change department for Greenpeace Greece, told AFP.

Authorities were taken by surprise at the end of July as hundreds of fires began around Athens, but also on the islands Evia and Rhodes and in the Peloponnese peninsula.  

Critics say poor infrastructure, weak policy and a lack of respect for nature are all at least partly to blame for the failure to contain the blazes in Greece. As a result, precious ecosystems will pay the price, and human lives are at risk.

In two weeks, almost 250,000 acres of land went up in smoke, eating up buildings, pine forests, olive groves, beehives and livestock and forcing dozens to flee from their homes. The European Forest Fire Information System said it was the biggest loss of land since 2007.\

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A firefighting plane responds to the wildfire in a forested area near the village of Vilia in Athens, Greece, August 17, 2021. Ayhan Mehmet/Anadolu Agency/Getty

Sweltering heatwaves such as the ones blanketing southern Europe increase the flammability of forests. But Efthymis Lekkas, Athens University professor of natural disaster management, said Greece’s failing operational and prevention systems were also to blame.  

“Firebreak roads in forests weren’t prioritized by the different Greek governments because they didn’t have a direct political impact,” he said, estimating the long-term impacts of the fires at around $5.9 billion.  
And illegal buildings, a lack of forest mapping and poor respect for nature are all part of a failing fire prevention policy, Grigoriou from Greenpeace said.  

Locals met by AFP denounced the firefighters’ lack of equipment to battle the huge blazes, which paled in comparison to the means of the firefighters from twenty other countries that came to lend a hand.

One resident, who could only watch helplessly as her village in the north of Evia island was circled by flames, told local reporters that allowing the fires to get so close to homes was a crime.  

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A resident sprays water near his property as a wildfire burns through a forest about 34 miles south of Athens, Greece, August 16, 2021. Dimitris Lampropoulos/NurPhoto/Getty

Greek authorities organized mass evacuations to avoid deaths, with the memory of the loss of 102 lives in fires in July 2018 and 77 lives in 2007 still sore. This year, three deaths have been recorded so far.  

Beyond the loss of human life, such huge wildfires will cause immense and long-lasting biodiversity loss, says Diana Bell from British University of East Anglia’s School of Biological Sciences.  

“Greece is home to more than 6,000 different species of plants and trees,” with some of them “not found anywhere else in the world,” Bell told AFP.

Athens has linked the wildfires to climate change, but environmental groups have accused the government of using rising temperatures as an excuse to cover up the lack of means and prevention policies.  

The country has ignored policy proposals from the World Wildlife Fund for 20 years, said the head of the group’s Greek chapter, Demetres Karavellas.

“The climate crisis is not an excuse to fail but must be taken as an alarm to instigate change,” he said.