How wildfires are threatening the Mediterranean way of life

Paralia Glistra beach in Lindos, southern Rhodes, is nearly empty on a peak summer day. The beach cafe and surrounding trees were burned by wildfire in July. Picture: Nicole Tung/The Washington Post

Paralia Glistra beach in Lindos, southern Rhodes, is nearly empty on a peak summer day. The beach cafe and surrounding trees were burned by wildfire in July. Picture: Nicole Tung/The Washington Post

Published Sep 3, 2023


By Anthony Faiola, Elinda Labropoulou

As flames approached the 19th century Monastery of Panagia Ipseni, the nuns inside steeled themselves. A village seer in the 1990s dreamed of women in charge of the sanctuary's cloistered life, prompting the Orthodox church to replace its male monks with sisters.

Now those nuns refused to leave - vowing to keep the wildfire at bay with prayer and water buckets.

But this was no ordinary blaze.

In what seemed like minutes, superheated gyres engulfed the workshop where the sisters labored over icons of Saint Meletios and the Virgin and Child. Smoke filled the monastery's mosaicked courtyards. The olive orchards and vineyards that provided their livelihood erupted in flames.

"It was like seeing hell," said Mother Superior Mariam Nikitiadi.

In a summer of megafires across the northern hemisphere, the Mediterranean region is confronting what from on the ground has seemed an existential threat. A toxic mix of extreme heat and drought, together with human malice or carelessness, has set the region ablaze, costing dozens of lives and untold millions in damage.

It's a scenario scientists didn't expect to become a reality so soon.

"The number of days of high or extreme fire danger in southern Europe is already at levels we thought we wouldn't see until 2050," said Jesus San Miguel, a senior researcher at the European Commission's Joint Research Centre. "Because of climate change, we are going much faster than we thought."

Wildfires - some record size - have been turning virgin forests into preternatural moonscapes and trigging mass evacuations of developed areas. Fires are threatening cultural heritage, too, in a part of the world known as much for the ruins of ancient civilization as the joys of the modern vacation.

Climate change has been altering aspects of life in the Mediterranean for some time. Warming seas have threatened the Greek table, devastating mussel harvests and bringing an army of invasive fish that prey on traditional catches such as squid and snapper. Air conditioners now protrude from many whitewashed homes.

But the wildfires offer a dire glimpse of a hotter, drier future - and serve as a brutal reminder of the challenges ahead.

Record wildfires in Greece endanger habitats and culture

Even as summer comes to a close, the fires are still burning. In Sicily, a blaze destroyed the 15th century Santa Maria di Gesù church, turning an ancient wooden statue of the Virgin Mary into a singed log and consuming the 434-year-old remains of St. Benedict the Moor. In Spain's Canary Islands last month, 26,000 people on Tenerife had to evacuate their homes as fires raged out of control.

Yet nowhere is the devastation this year worse than in Greece, a place of priceless antiquities and rich local traditions that is now battling a historic fire outbreak.

Hundreds of firefighters - including reinforcements from across Europe - have struggled for nearly two weeks to a contain a gigantic blaze in northern Greece that has killed 20 people and consumed an area four times larger than New York City, making it the largest fire ever recorded within the borders of the European Union.

So much of the Dadia Forest has burned that experts fear its supposedly protected ecosystem - home to golden eagles and four species of vultures - may never recover. Dadia "will never be seen again as we knew it," Alexandros Dimitrakopoulos, head of the school of forestry and natural environment of Aristotle University of Thessaloniki told the Greek press.

Greeks on some days are waking up to news of dozens of new fires. Residents of Athens - as well as tourists combing the Acropolis - watched nervously last week, as smoke from orange flames bellowed from the hills outside the capital.

"This is a time of crisis," said Vassilis Kikilias, Greek minister of climate crisis and civil protection. "We are all under pressure."

The fires have fueled a national debate over causes and responses.

Officials are pointing to arsonists - dozens of suspects were detained in recent weeks - and an unfortunate combination of extremely hot, dry and windy conditions. Some Greek leaders have also implicated migrants who have sought shelter in forests (and at least 19 of whom died in the recent fires).

In answer to criticism that the government was insufficiently prepared, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis announced plans Thursday to buy drones to monitor fires, deploy heat sensors at key sites and hire more scientists and firefighters.

Environmental groups, meanwhile, say the focus should be on fire prevention, water management and the urgency of addressing climate change - with the uncomfortable knowledge that wildfires have sent Greece's carbon emissions spiking.

But with summer temperatures in Southern Europe warming at a rate three times faster than the global average, many people here wonder whether the Mediterranean way of life can be saved.

After a fire in Rhodes, scenes of devastation

Fire is a scourge in Greece as old as marauding Romans, Persians and Ottomans. But even seasoned firefighters were jarred by the unprecedented intensity of the July blaze that burned 14 percent of Rhodes over 10 seething days.

Rhodes is wetter and greener than many Greek islands. And yet 100-degree heat made the fire impossible to put out - water released from planes evaporated before reaching the flames.

"This wasn't just a fire, it was a phenomenon," said Rhodes Fire Chief Nikitas Venios, 58. "I have never seen something like this before. I have never seen the air burn and the soil boil. This is something new."

By the time the inferno had been brought under control, it had devoured thousands of acres of forest, consumed 50,000 olive trees and required a Dunkirk-like evacuation of 20,000 people.

Greek authorities have heralded that mass evacuation - described as the largest in Greek history - as an example of efficient crisis management. They credit a new alert system that flashed warnings on the phones of people within evacuation zones for helping to avoid the sort of horrific fatalities of Maui's recent blaze.

But critics - including locals who helped tourists escape in their personal cars and boats - have described scenes of chaos and accused local officials of failing to develop a comprehensive evacuation plan as required by Greek law. They allege that the bulk of professional firefighting assistance went toward helping luxury hotels and their wealthy owners, while local villages had to depend more on volunteer efforts. And they say the single fatality in the Rhodes fires - of a volunteer firefighter - was mostly a matter of chance.

"It was luck that more people weren't injured," said Christos Maliarakis, chairman of the Rhodes International Cultural & Heritage Society. "The question now is what happens next. The fear is that parts of Rhodes lose the charm that brought people here."

In a country heavily dependent on tourism - and an island that is even more - Greek authorities have desperately sought to repair PR damage, pledging free vacations next year for evacuees. Longer term, though, the vital tourism sector in southern Europe faces greater challenges. A July study by the European Union projected that global warming could lead to a drop in visitors to some Greek islands by more than 9 percent, while boosting tourism to northern destinations like Wales.

The medieval city of Rhodes - located far from where July's blaze raged - remains unscathed and chock full of tourists. That's because, in an era of fires, all impacts are local. In harder-hit southern communities such as Kiotari and Lardos, several damaged hotels remained closed, and main streets, typically full in summer, have the feel of ghost towns.

"We're all about the season," said Georgina Apolokiayis, co-owner of the beachfront Lighthouse restaurant in Kiotari, where on a recent afternoon three of 15 tables were occupied. "We live for August. And look around you. We're practically empty."

On a drive inland to her home, where several village houses burned, she pointed to an undulating hellscape of charred trees. "Who knows how long it's going to take to bounce back from this. I mean, who's going to come on holiday to look at that."

One reason the fires spread rapidly here, experts said, had to do with a gradual slipping away of traditional life. There are fewer farmers and shepherds - whose sheep and goats graze clearings that tend to slow fires - and more hotel workers.

"Why? Because it's hard work - and then something like this happens," said Strevlos Mandis, a 67-year-old farmer standing in the charred remains of his living room. A few feet away, the burned corpse of his dog, Mexicana, was curled up by her melted water bowl. Mandis lost nearly half of flock of sheep in the fire. Uninsured, like most people here, he has "no idea" how he'll rebuild.

On the main coastal road south, Dimitris Hatzifotis, 26, stood amid the charred remnants of Angelaki, a taverna and local institution founded by his late father.

Home of a secret recipe goat dish and evening dancing to folk music under clear starry skies, Angelaki was the hangout for locals in Kiotari - as well as the only restaurant open in the off season.

On the morning of July 24, after a night he spent helping save homes from fire in his village, he stood in front of the restaurant's burning husk. He cried, initially refusing to leave before being gently nudged to safety by local police.

Hatzifotis, too, was not insured.

Standing in a blackened room of the restaurant where a melted cash register was fused to a desk, he fretted over the future of Rhodes. The fires, he said, are a symptom of a greater ill. An avid fisherman, he has watched as predatory fish from warmer climes invaded the waters off Rhodes, feasting on the traditional catches of snapper and grouper. He once grew watermelons on Rhodes without water - now, in the dryer weather, he needs irrigation.

"Everything we knew is disappearing," he said.