Dwarfed by the silhouette remains of a torched forest, Giorgios explains how he has lost 50 years – or two whole generations – of income to the wildfires that burned his home for seven days and seven nights.
The father-of-three lives on Greece’s second-largest island Evia, a quarter of which is now a devastated burned wasteland.
The tidal wave of flames consumed Giorgios’ home, his warehouse of tools and all of nearly 3,000 of his pine trees, whose resin he cultivated for a living.
It was among over 60 major wildfires that have broken out across Greece in the last few months, destroying well over 130,000 hectares of forest, 10 times the yearly average, according to the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS).
“Every one of my trees will have to be cut down and replanted. It will take 50 years to do that,” Giorgis, 46, says, desperate in the detonating sunlight.
He fears many others will have to leave Evia and a whole way of living will end.
“Nothing can be salvaged; there are no animals, not even oxygen.”
“We’re talking generations gone. How do you calculate that loss?”
Behind him an apocalypse yawns across the horizon: Giacometti trees march down charred hills and spill into clusters of smouldering villages where in one, a church looks like an airstrike site and bewildered inhabitants pick through aid deliveries.
Notably absent is the gentle hum of wildlife, most of it wiped out in horrific scenes captured on mobile phone videos. The island is famous for its bees, and reportedly produced 60 percent of Greece’s honey, an industry now devastated. And so is eerily quiet, except a distant fire truck wailing its way south where fresh wildfires have erupted.
The sound is echoed across the narrow Euripus Strait, northwest of the capital Athens, where new fires have also begun to rage, sending towering columns of smoke into the air which in the evening forms hallucinogenic sunsets of bruised neon.
But Evia and Greece, for all the horror, is not an exception. Rather it is part of a nightmare unfurling across the world right now and a grim glimpse into the future of what is coming to all of us.
It is a vision that experts warn will be the “new normal” particularly in the Mediterranean basin, where fires right now are raging from the Riveria to Algeria (where 75 people have been killed).
The triggers for the fires are accidents or arson and dozens have been arrested across the region for the individual incidents. But experts agree that whatever the match is, the lighter fluid creating the perfect firestorm is the manmade climate crisis and soaring temperatures.
Professor Richard Best, Head of Climate Impacts Research at the UK’s Met Office told The Independent recent reports show droughts are increasing in many parts of the world.
“This is particularly important in the Mediterranean where there has not been a detectable trend in meteorological drought, ie. low rainfall but there has been a very clear trend in ecological drought: reduced soil moisture due to higher evaporation.”
This is because of soaring temperatures and is fast parching the landscape which, when whipped by hot winds, creates a perfect tinderbox.
And so it is no coincidence that as the fires broke out in Greece as it simmered through its worst heatwave in three decades.
In Italy, where major wildfires have burned over 150,000 hectares of land, temperatures were so high they reached 48.8 degrees celsius in Sicily last week, likely Europe’s hottest ever day according to the Met Office that warned we need to prepare for 50-degree heat being a regular occurrence.
In fact this July was the hottest month ever recorded on earth, according to the US’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
And so this problem stretches well beyond the Mediterranean.
Worsening drought and heat have fuelled record wildfires in the western United States and in Russia’s northern Siberia region where swathes of land have been on fire for a staggering two months.
Mark Parrington, a senior scientist in the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS), told The Independent this is what makes 2021 so unprecedented.
In all the years he has been monitoring global wildfires he said it is unusual to see so many fires rage for so long on both sides of the Arctic ocean as well as Europe simultaneously.
“The different locations all at once the persistence of the fires is unprecedented,” he said.
“Six of the worst fires in Californian history have been in the last 12 months. June and July set records in terms of burn area and estimated emissions” globally, he added.
The problems go beyond the actual flames. Air pollution “has no borders” he added, warning that while fires can be contained locally, the impact chokes neighbouring countries making fires an international problem regardless of individual states’ fire risk.
For example in Greece the total carbon emissions from the wildfires during just the first two weeks of August, is fast reaching the 3.7 mega tonnes of carbon emitted during the whole of August in 2007, which was a record bad year. That smog is already drifting across borders smothering neighbouring states which have so far been fire-free.
All this means we “must adapt” adds Professor Best.
“People will need to be more aware of fire risks and take appropriate steps to protect themselves,” he said. Governments have to invest.
It’s keenly felt on Evia, where the authorities have faced mounting criticism from inhabitants who accuse them of not responding fast enough to the fires and not investing enough in fire prevention and response. The government has defended its actions saying it was impossible as they were fighting fires across three major areas of the country, including areas near the capital.
In Giorgis town, where 20 houses and a church burned, next to pallet boxes of food aid graffiti reads “You didn’t give money to firefighting equipment, you should have sent the riot police to put out the villages,” referencing investment in policing.
There, an elderly member of the village, also called Giorgos, 84, said they were not given any warning to evacuate by the state but instead fled in their own cars, when someone rang the church bell.
“I have gone through war but I have never seen such a scale of disaster,” he said, adding the only time he has had to evacuate this village was during the Greek civil war in the 1940s.
“I saw death approaching, we were terrified”.
A few doors down Thanasis, says “fires had to wait for aerial reinforcements which only came when the flames were 50 metres high.
“We didn’t even receive an alert message that other villages did.”
A few kilometres away the same sentiment is expressed by a local community leader who claimed the authorities waited until 40km of land was on fire when they intervened.
“They had no plan at the start or when it expanded. And so everything is eviscerated, wild boar burned, beehives, tortoises burned. There is nothing now.”
Ioannis Kontzias, Mayor of Istiaia Edipsos, another affected area on Evia, said he had to send in local men with tractors to evacuate some areas.
“There should have been a plan in place, there should be a plan implemented,” he said in despair.
The government has defended its actions saying they were stretched to the limit with so many fires happening simultaneously, meaning they had to call for international support. About 24 European and Middle Eastern countries responded, sending planes, helicopters, vehicles and hundreds of firefighters.
Greece’s prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has described the fires as the greatest ecological disaster his country has witnessed in decades.
“The situation we are facing is unprecedented for the country,” a government spokesman Giannis Oikonomou said during a recent press briefing.
“The fight we are waging on this front is threefold: extinguishing the fires, preventing new outbreaks, and repairing damage and compensating those affected.”
But realising this is the new normal, fire department chiefs told The Independent lessons need to be learned from 2021 and alongside urgent and dramatic changes to tackle climate change there needed to be more investment in national and international firefighting capabilities.
“We need more resources, more equipment, more staff because the future is dark,” said Konstantinos Pachidis, a fire major-general.
“There needs to be more global investment in international cooperation for firefighting. We need to change our planning. We need groundbreaking new ideas as a country, as a European Union, as a world,’ he added.
For those on Evia, they say it is too late, their lives are already ruined, whole livelihoods have been wiped out for decades to come.
“Even if we do manage to rebuild. We are worried about the wildfires of the future, if we base our livelihoods on the earth, on the forests,” Giorgos says, moving through the skeletal forest.
“For now, how will we live? We raise up our hands. We are destroyed. Destroyed.”