Experts urge better prevention as fires kill people and animals in Greece

Director of Greek wildlife shelter tells The National of growing struggles year on year due to rising temperatures

The fire, which is now in its second week, is the largest on record in Europe. Photo: Anima Wild
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A leading wildlife rescue organisation in Greece has urged the government to introduce more effective measures to protect the country’s fragile ecosystem from rising temperatures and wildfires.

“These long, hot and dry summers will be the new constant in our lives,” said Maria Ganoti, director of the NGO Anima Wild, which operates the main first aid station and shelter for wildlife in Greece.

“We as citizens and the state need to realise this and try to adjust to be ahead of the problem, instead of running after it and trying to rescue what is left,” she added.

As she spoke to The National, Ms Ganoti was preparing a team of volunteers to go to Dadia National Park in north-eastern Greece, where the summer’s worst wildfires had been raging.

The fire, which is now in its second week, is the largest on record in Europe, according to the European Commission.

“Dadia has seen the biggest environmental destruction so far,” said Ms Ganoti.

A series of devastating fires this summer have caught the government on the back foot, as experts and opposition figures blame poor management for the extent of the devastation.

The fires have killed at least 26 people so far, including 18 believed to be migrants.

Wildfires across Greece are expected to consume more than 150,000 hectares of land this summer alone, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told parliament this week.

Opposition politicians accuse the government of acting slowly to put preventive measures in place and of poor co-ordination between the various government agencies concerned.

Mr Mitsotakis said the growing climate crisis, the summer's extended heatwave in Greece and the hot dry winds had fuelled the fires.

“Is the climate crisis the alibi for everything?” he said, “No, it is not an alibi – but it is part of the interpretation.”

He pointed to similar disasters this summer in Canada, Spain and the US.

“Even those countries that have a greater financial capacity than Greece” were unable to cope with the fires," he said.

He also announced he would be recruiting more firefighters and buying equipment such as drones to help monitor such disasters.

This year's fires are certainly more intense than those of previous years because of climate change, Alexandros Dimitrakopoulos, head of Forest Protection and the Wildland Fire Science Lab at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, told AFP.

But that does not fully explain the extent of the damage, he said, adding that 10 per cent of the country's woodlands had gone up in smoke since 2007.

“Better planning in the fight against fires is needed, as well as better co-operation between the fire services and the specialists in geomorphology of wooded zones,” Mr Dimitrakopoulos warned, referring to the scientific study of the form or shape of the land.

Every year, shelter director Ms Ganoti witnesses first-hand the devastating effect of rising temperatures on Greece’s wildlife.

Over the past week, her team had been on the ground in the Parnitha mountain range outside of Athens where another fire had been burnt for days.

Among the animals rescued have been tortoises, which were too slow to flee the fires, and deer.

“The tortoises are either found burnt from the fires, or they are found in the areas where the fires have passed and need monitoring because they have inhaled smoke. We don’t know what effect this has in the long term,” she said.

The rescue operation in Dadia will begin once the fires have cleared.

“Next week, a group of volunteers we work with closely will go to Dadia to estimate what is needed. If there are any animals that need our intervention, we will send a vet and a team to set up a clinic,” she said.

The shelter is one of three wildlife rescue charities operating in Greece, and takes in thousands of birds and other animals every year.

But this year had been the worst, she said. “It’s been non-stop since May. We had the prolonged heatwave followed by the wildfires right after,” she said.

She estimated that they had rescued 600 swifts, whose nestlings fall out of their nests as they attempt to escape the heat, 30 vultures who experienced dehydration, and around 400 tortoises, among other animals.

Among the possible preventive measures, Ganoti said, was better forest management.

“The [government] should start taking into account the proposals of forest experts and biologists who know how to protect the forest, so that the biomass can be reduced,” she said.

A dedicated team of firefighters specialising in forest fires should also be formed, Ms Ganoti said.

“Our current firefighters are experts in putting out fires in buildings, or those caused by car accidents and chemicals. That is an entirely different thing to putting out fires in the forest,” she added.

Nature reserves should also take active measures to protect animals from rising temperatures. “We know that the summer is going to be hot and dry. So what can we do to provide water for the animals?” she said.

Her organisation's proposal to add water tanks for vultures in Crete will be implemented next year, she added, reducing the risk of dehydration during periods of extreme heat.

The recovery challenges after the fires will be immense.

“In Dadia, the plan is to build platforms so that the endangered birds can return next year and build their nests there. They’re going to have feeders to provide food for all these birds,” she said.

The aftermath of the fires is likely to spill over into other areas of Greek life, like construction and access to roads.

“All plans for development in the area, whether its building housing or factories, must be stopped so that the forest can regrow,” said Ms Ganoti.

“The most important thing is for the forest to remain untouched so that it can grow again and the animals can return,” she added.

Updated: September 02, 2023, 5:31 PM