The Devastating 2023 Wildfires in Greece and the Urgent Call for Climate Action

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Greece is experiencing a devastating start to wildfire season this summer. Ferocious wildfires have ripped through the country, belching thick clouds of toxic smoke and forcing tens of thousands to evacuate. The island of Rhodes has been particularly hard hit, with over 20,000 residents and tourists forced to flee as flames engulfed popular beach resorts. The Rhodes wildfire is just one of over 500 blazes firefighters have battled across Greece in the past 12 days.

The area burned so far in 2023 is well above the 16-year average for Greece. The extreme fire risk has impacted both the mainland and islands like Rhodes and Evia. On Evia, the Greece wildfires have led to the largest evacuation in the country's history as over 16,000 people have fled by land and sea. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has said the nation is "at war" with the fires that show no signs of abating with more hot, dry days ahead.

What's Causing the Fires?

Wildfires can start from various ignition sources like campfires, cigarettes, and lightning. However, the scale of the 2023 fires across Greece is linked to the hot, dry conditions stoked by climate change. Decades of burning fossil fuels have heated the planet and Europe by over 1°C above pre-industrial levels. This climate crisis has made extreme heatwaves more likely across the continent.

While scientists will need to conduct attribution studies to quantify the precise role of global warming, climate projections show heat-induced fire weather will increase throughout southern Europe as temperatures rise. Under current policies putting the world on track for 2.7°C of heating, models forecast a 14% rise in dangerous fire conditions for Greece.

Health Dangers from Toxic Smoke

The wildfires in Greece don't just destroy property and land. Smoke from the blazes also poses a serious health risk. Strong winds can carry tiny particulate matter deep into lungs. This PM2.5 pollution has been linked to asthma, lung damage, heart disease, and premature death. PM2.5 concentrations around the Greek fires are already far above yearly averages.

People near the fires face threats like burns, heat stroke, and smoke inhalation. But those farther away remain at risk from breathing the toxic particles. N95 masks can provide some protection, along with closing windows and limiting time outdoors. Even so, smoke emissions from the 2023 fires are more than double Greece's average over the prior 16 years.

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Beyond physical health, survivors of the fires also face trauma from losing loved ones, homes, and livelihoods. Studies show increased depression lasting for years, especially in children. The government must provide mental health resources to support those impacted.

As climate change leads to hotter weather and drier vegetation, experts say countries like Greece will continue seeing more catastrophic wildfire seasons. Cutting carbon emissions remains critical to prevent heating the planet further. Governments must also fund firefighters, first responders, and health services to manage the growing crisis.

Economic Impacts on Tourism and Agriculture

The wildfires torching Greece will also take a heavy economic toll. Tourism makes up a fifth of the country's GDP, but many visitors have cut their holidays short and fled home as beaches become battlegrounds. Hotels and resorts face huge losses, especially on islands like Rhodes where tourism drives the local economy.

Beyond tourism, the fires have destroyed cropland and forests. Greece's farms and olive groves provide food and exports that sustain rural livelihoods. With so much agriculture affected, the country may face shortages and price increases. Rebuilding homes, businesses, and farms will cost billions.

The government has pledged compensation for those impacted, but funds will be limited. Greece was just recovering from financial crisis and the pandemic's hit to tourism. Now the economic damage from wildfires could set back progress for years. Other countries may need to provide aid.

Preparing for the Future

With climate change poised to make heatwaves and fires more common, Greece must take steps to prepare. Early warning systems need improvement to evacuate people faster. Controlled burns in cooler months can reduce fuel for fires. Strict building codes can help homes withstand sparks.

Most importantly, Greece should continue expanding its firefighting capacity. After criticizing the response this year, the government has pledged to hire hundreds more firefighters and obtain additional aircraft and vehicles. These investments need to be sustained for the long term.

Internationally, countries must work together to provide relief and cut greenhouse gas emissions. The crisis in Greece foreshadows what may become a yearly struggle as the planet heats up. Only by cooperating and addressing the root causes can we avoid more tragic fire seasons.

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