Thousands of people have been evacuated from the outskirts of Athens as fires raged in the towns and suburbs on the outskirts of the capital city. There were also huge fires on nearby Evia—the largest of the Greek islands—and the Peloponnese in the southwest.
Petros Constantinou is an Athens city councillor from the radical left wing coalition, Antarsya. He told Socialist Worker how the fires had destroyed houses, spread toxic clouds across the city and caused a power shortage.
“What has happened has been like a bomb,” said Petros.
“There was a big fire in Varibobi, an area about eight miles from the centre of Athens. The centre of this area, the central squares, houses and industrial areas were all under threat.
“The dust in the atmosphere was so dangerous that they’ve called on people to stay in their houses in Athens. They even say to wear two masks while inside because the smoke is very toxic.”
He added, “Athens has been very close to a blackout. We’ve had ten days of heat up to 46 degrees centigrade, and yet people were left without electricity. Even big hospitals were under threat.
“The privatisation of the public power service means that there are less personnel available to care for the networks of electricity in Greece. The power lines and pylons pass through forests. If they don’t prepare for fires, these pylons are caught up in the fire.”
The electricity crisis is just one example of how Greek governments have put profit over the climate and people’s lives. Petros says cuts and privatisations have all “contributed to the catastrophic effects of the fire”.
For a start, austerity has left the fire service underfunded and under-resourced.
“The fire brigade asked for £14 million in the budget for the suppression of fires,” said Petros. “They gave them only £1.4 million. Last year employees of the fire service who were on temporary contracts demanded to be made permanent. But the government denied them this.
“Now the Tory prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis responds, while on holiday in Crete, that he’s tired of hearing that the solution to every problem is more recruitment.”
On top of this, there are the longer term effects of the privatisation and destruction of land in the interests of big business.
“The forests are state property,” explained Petros. “But a lot of laws have allowed building and destruction of green spaces.”
These include laws brought in by the previous government of the once radical party Syriza which, when in government, gave in to the demands of bosses and bankers.
“The Syriza government voted in a new law that gives industry the right to obtain small scale building licenses,” said Petros. “With this license, a civil engineer has the right to cut down trees even without the agreement of the forest industry.
“These laws change the status of the land which gives businesses the ability to cut down trees without punishment.
Petros added, “This is connected to real estate and speculation on land. It’s part of a gentrification process and privatisation of the hills and green spaces in Athens.”
He linked it to the council’s destruction and privatisation of green spaces in the city itself. “Last month in Athens there were demonstrations because the council is destroying green spaces.
“Then just last week the Tory mayor was proud to say they were going to plant 1,000 trees in Athens. It’s far from enough—we need hundreds of thousands of new trees.
“But the mayor boasts of 1,000—and this is the plan for tackling climate change. It’s like they’re living on another planet.”
The latest wildfires in Greece are reminiscent of a similar disaster in 2018. More than 100 people were killed when fires ripped through the region of Attica, near Athens, and destroyed homes.
“When we have this destruction, the relief that people get is gestures and sympathy in the media. But then the authorities don’t rebuild their houses—people only get given loans.
“Now a lot of houses have been lost in the Peloponnese and Evia—and fires threaten to get inside cities, towns and villages. This is the real cost of the collapse of local authorities. They don’t have the means to defend their cities from the fires in the period of climate change.
“That’s why this problem is a class issue, and the fight against the cuts is central. This is a fight to keep your home.”
People are fleeing their homes in Italy and Spain
A thousand-year old olive tree in the hilltop village of Cuglieri in the Italian island of Sardinia was destroyed by fire. Around 1,000 people fled their homes on the island last week.
Firefighters monitored more than 800 fires throughout Italy, in the last weekend of July.
While there have been floods in the North, Italy has had almost 13,000 more wildfires than last year, mostly in the southern regions of Apulia, Calabria and Sicily (pictured above).
In the Spanish state, the story is similar. The northeastern region of Catalonia saw more than 1,500 hectares destroyed near Santa Coloma de Queralt, forcing dozens to be evacuated.
In Lietor, in the central east region of Castilla-La Mancha, more than 2,500 hectares burned.
So far this year, wildfires have burned across 35,000 hectares in Spain.
For scale a hectare is the size of Trafalgar Square in London or a rugby pitch.
“The terrorists are trying to sabotage the tourism industry,” they cried. But a historical high of 49 Celcius had been recorded in southern Turkey the day before the fires began.
The second incredible thing was discovered as the fires raged along the country’s southwestern Aegean coast—where some of Turkey’s popular tourist resorts are. Only two fire-fighting aircraft existed, and that these had not been serviced as necessary.
The geographical features of the areas on fire made them difficult to reach by road. This made it vital to have air support.
In many places, no support arrived. Whole villages, holiday resorts and hotels which could have been saved with the proper preparation and equipment had to be abandoned.
Thousands of people had to be evacuated by sea.
As the corruption and negligence that led to the aircraft scandal was exposed, the government added insult to injury by refusing aircraft and equipment from Greece, Israel and others. “We are a great nation. We do not need help from others” was their stupid and nationalistic argument.
They quickly had to eat humble pie though, as the fires gathered speed and began to threaten bigger towns and a coal-powered hydroelectric power plant.
The scandals and government ineptitude that the fires exposed are unlikely to be forgotten quickly.
Despite government attempts to censor TV news and images of the fires, everyone in the country has seen, on social media or in real life, people begging for government help and action.
Everyone has seen that the help that came was too little too late. Thousands have lost their homes, farms and livelihood. Eight people have died fighting the flames.
One journalist put it perfectly, “The state was buried under the ashes.”
Profit drive is fuelling the fires
Forest fires burning across the southern Europe are terrifying products of the climate crisis.
Forests are vital ecosystems that support life but they’re disappearing at an alarming rate. Last year a shocking 20 percent of Australia’s trees were burnt down.
In the US there have been 224 significant forest fires since 2000 which have contributed to the country losing 15 percent of its trees between 2001‑20.
Forest fires are often natural occurrences that have a small part to play in ecosystem’s life cycles. However the frequency and intensity of these fires are a result of human accelerated climate change.
Global warming means perfect conditions are being created for these fires to spread much faster.
A warmer climate means that the evaporation of groundwater happens much faster. This makes the soil and the flora that feed on it much drier.
Another symptom of the climate crisis is an increase in pest infestations that kill off healthy trees. Some studies have suggested that more dead trees can lead to the fiercest wildfires, called Crown Fires, which are much harder to contain.
Forest fires not only pose a physical threat to human life in the immediacy but the smoke they produce can have harmful consequences for people’s health long-term.
Smoke from fires can travel hundreds of miles. This can lead people across borders to breathe in toxic pollutants.
According to a new report in the Nature Communications Journal inhaling the smoke from forest fires can be at least 10 times more harmful than inhaling soot from factories or car exhausts.
These fires are also a threat to our existence as a whole.
Forests are “carbon sinks” meaning they absorb and fix huge amounts of atmospheric carbon. They are invaluable in absorbing some of the greenhouse gases that human activities cause.
But as forests burn they release this carbon back into the atmosphere.
The burning of fossil fuels and deforestation is a deadly combination. Together these two processes are speeding up climate change.
To disrupt this deadly cycle we need urgent change. Resources must be funnelled into infrastructure projects that protect people from fires.
But to get forest fires under control, the system that exploits the world’s natural resources for profit must end.