Terror as deadly wildfire burns Greek resort

Hellish: The mayor of the Rafina-Pikermi area personally saw at least 100 homes in flames.

Can we prevent wildfires? At least 70 people are dead after flames tore through Attica, a popular tourist area in Greece. What can be done to stop a tragedy like this happening again?

“We’re talking about a biblical catastrophe.” These were the stunned words of George Vokas, a resident of the Greek seaside resort of Mati, just hours after it was destroyed by wildfires. At least 70 people have died in blazes across the Attica region, and officials say the death toll is rising by the hour.

“Mati doesn’t even exist as a settlement anymore,” said a local woman. “I saw corpses, burned-out cars. I feel lucky to be alive.”

Many of those who escaped fled into the sea. “It burned our backs and we dived into the water,” recounted one survivor. Those less fortunate, including many tourists, found themselves trapped by walls of smoke and fire.

And it is not restricted to Greece. Soldiers and helicopters from across Europe are in Sweden battling more than 50 forest fires, a dozen of which are inside the Arctic Circle. Used to cold weather and snow, Sweden is ill-equipped to deal with the dangers of the hot, dry weather parching the northern hemisphere.

Why is this happening? There is currently a weak jet stream which has extended the current heatwave. As grass dries to hay and the sun keeps beating down, ideal conditions for wildfires are established. Sometimes, all that is needed is a small spark and a breeze to trigger the kind of devastation seen in Greece.

While July’s hot spell cannot be explicitly linked climate change, the World Meterological Organisation says it is “compatible with the general long-term trend due to rising concentrations of greenhouse gases”.

There is also a human element. Early reports suggest the Greek fires may have been started by arsonists looking to loot abandoned homes. Greece has requested drones from the US to “observe and detect any suspicious activity”.

In June, a huge fire on Saddleworth Moor near Manchester took three weeks to put out. It is also being treated as arson after men were spotted lighting a bonfire.

Can we prevent wildfires?

Playing with fire

We can limit them, argue some. Many wildfires are the result of human error rather than malice, so we can reduce their frequency through public awareness campaigns that highlight the dangers of dropping cigarettes or burning rubbish. Carrying out small, controlled fires in danger areas can also limit the risk of “megafires” as it leaves less fuel for the flames.

It’s out of our hands, say others. Even if we could influence the human factor, the hot, dry weather that helps wildfires spread will become increasingly common due to rising global temperatures and extreme weather events, which are driven by climate change. The best thing we could do to prevent wildfires would be to stop burning fossil fuels, which isn’t likely to happen any time soon.

You Decide

  1. Are wildfires the most terrifying kind of natural disaster?
  2. Would a public safety campaign be effective in preventing wildfires?

Activities

  1. Research different methods of preventing wildfires. Make a list of which three measures you think are the most effective and why.
  2. Draw a map of the world and, after carrying out some research, plot five locations that have seen record-breaking temperatures in 2018.

Some People Say...

“It is we humans who are fragile and vulnerable and the earth that is hearty and powerful.”

Naomi Klein

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
At least 70 people have been killed, dozens injured, and more than 700 survivors evacuated by sea from the area around Mati, Greece. The small town was largely destroyed by fire on Monday. Twenty-six of those who died were found huddled together close to a beach. The Greek prime minister has declared a state of emergency across the Attica region — which includes Athens — where several smaller fires have broken out.
What do we not know?
How the fires started. The reports of arson are unconfirmed, and it can be very difficult to work out the cause of wildfires due to the scale of destruction. Many people are still thought to be missing, but we do not know whether the death toll will rise further.

Word Watch

The Arctic Circle
This winter, the Arctic experienced a severe heatwave for the third year in a row.
Northern hemisphere
This month, there have been record-breaking temperatures in Canada, Algeria and Japan. In Japan, at least 65 people have been killed by the heat in the past week. After weeks without any rain, much of the grass in the UK has turned from green to yellow and white. An area of low pressure over Europe is also pulling in hot weather from the Middle East and Africa.
Jet stream
A band of strong winds in the upper levels of the atmosphere that steer weather around the world. When it is weak, weather changes are slower
Long-term trend
Between 1988 and 2015, the frequency of heatwaves lasting for three days or longer has more than doubled.
Arson
The criminal act of deliberately setting fire to property. The most severe types of arson, those with intended threat to human life, can be punishable with life sentences in the UK.

Subjects

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.