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expert reaction to Greek island wildfires

There have been reports of wildfires breaking out on the Greek islands of Rhodes, Corfu, and Evia.


Prof Guillermo Rein, Professor of Fire Science, Imperial College London, said:

“The combination of heat, wind and people in the Mediterranean is mortal.  There have always been wildfires in the South but climate change is making them larger, faster, and harder to stop.

“The intense heat of the summer dries vegetation and makes it very flammable, easier to catch fire.  A heat wave or an unusually hot summer leads to even more flammable forests.

“Strong winds greatly accelerate wildfire.  The combination of wind and dry vegetation makes wildfires much faster.  They become walls of flames that cannot be stopped by ground crews or slowed down by airtankers.

“Large wildfires might jump over firebreaks because of the intense heat they radiate over dozens of meters, and the flying embers that can carry flames kilometres away.

“Poor management of forests leads to increased fuel loads, vegetation of the most flammable type, and few or narrow firebreaks.  This is unfortunate, because fire safety and ecology require determined and wise management of the forest.

“When all goes wrong, when dry vegetation is plentiful, there is wind and previous forest management was poor, then the fire brigades cannot do much, and evacuation of communities along the possible fire path must be evacuated with plenty of time to reach a safe place.”


Dr Thomas Smith, Associate Professor in Environmental Geography, London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), said:

“The wildfire on Rhodes began almost a week ago on Tuesday 18 July, and was confined to the hilly terrain of the interior of the island until Saturday when strong northerly winds drove the fire at a fast pace to the coast, some 20 km to the south.  This coastline is packed with large resort hotels and was the main focus of the evacuation.

“Fire conducive weather has been ‘extreme’ or ‘very extreme’ according to the fire weather index – a metric that combines information on temperature, relative humidity, rainfall, and winds.  Aside from Rhodes, parts of southwestern Turkey, Crete, Sicily, and Sardinia all have similar extreme fire weather outlooks for the coming days.

“Extreme fire weather means faster moving fires with more intensity (bigger flames), this increases risk because they become more difficult to fight and there is usually less time for evacuation.  It’s a testament to the Greek authorities that the evacuation was swift and effective.  Greece has been devastated by much more severe fire events in recent years, and they were clearly very well prepared for this fire.

“Human-driven climate change is increasing the likelihood and intensity of heatwaves.  This is the second major heatwave in the Mediterranean this year.  The first heatwave was found to have been made 100-times more likely due to the human impact on climate change, and at least 2°C hotter.  I expect there will be a similar finding for the current situation, which is ultimately responsible for the wildfires we’ve been seeing over the past week.”


Dr Douglas Kelley, a land surface modeller at the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, said:

“It is too early to say if climate change has caused these wildfires.  However, the fact there are now so many across the world, most recently in Greece and Canada, is a clear sign that climate change is causing an increase in the number of severe wildfires globally.

“Heatwaves such as the one in Greece are more likely under climate change.  A heatwave dries out vegetation and dead plant material, which makes the fires more intense and spread much faster, especially with the recent high winds.

“While not uncommon in southern Europe, what was unusual about the fires in Rhodes was the intensity and the speed at which they spread.  We predict there will be a global increase in these extreme fires of up 50 per cent by the end of the century.

“There is a feedback loop where fires in ecosystems that store large amounts of carbon, such as forests, result in the release of vast quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.  This exacerbates global warming, which in turn increases the risk of wildfires.

“Even if we reduce greenhouse gas emissions, there are likely to be more wildfire events by 2100 because global temperatures are continuing to rise and are expected to reach 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius higher than pre-industrial times.  This means that communities in some regions will need to adapt to increases in burning.’’

Dr Douglas Kelley was lead data analyst on a report for UNEP last year which predicted a global increase of extreme fires of up to 14 per cent by 2030, 30 per cent by 2050 and 50 per cent by the end of the century.

Link to 2022 UNEP report

Spreading like Wildfire: The Rising Threat of Extraordinary Landscape Fires | UNEP – UN Environment Programme


Dr Matthew Jones, NERC Independent Research Fellow, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, School of Environmental Sciences, UEA, said:

How unusual are wildfires like these in these places at this time of year?  Do we know what has caused these wildfires?

“It’s important to note that these wildfires are happening in environments that are naturally prone to fire during hot and dry summers, with vegetation that is highly adapted to live with fire.  For humans, there has essentially always been a risk of living in such environments, in the same way that living near a fault line makes you vulnerable to occasional earthquakes.  These fires are obviously not the first ones to affect Greece or the Mediterranean more generally.

“HOWEVER, under climate change, what’s changing is the frequency of the weather conditions that enable fires like this to break out, and also to burn so intensely and synchronously across the Mediterranean.  The Mediterranean has seen a dramatic increase in the frequency of the hot-dry conditions that were considered extreme at the end of the last century1, and these increases are expected to accelerate for each added degree of warming in future.

“To minimise the additional risk of events like these in future, we – that is, policymakers and wider society – must deliver on the ambition shown in Paris in 2015 to limit warming to no more than 2 degrees C.  This is just one more example of how climate change can impact society in negative and costly ways, and why there is so much urgency to do something about it now.

Is there anything specific to these being on islands?

“It is perhaps not a total coincidence that the largest fires are emerging on islands and coastal areas, because these fires are exposed to maritime winds that are helping to fan the blaze.  We know that wind is one of the key agents to fire spread – at times like these, when the vegetation is already dry enough to burn, so anything that helps to blow the flames across the landscape is only going to accelerate the rate at which these fires are spreading.

“The hilliness of some of these islands also lends itself to rapid fire spread, because fires travel faster upslope than they do downslope or on flat ground.

Why are people being evacuated from some parts of these islands?

“Experts in wildfire behaviour have assessed the likely path of the fires, often using physics-based models that account for the weather conditions, topography and the density of the vegetation fuels that are available to burn.  They have judged that if local people and holidaymakers are not evacuated, these people could die.”

1 A factoid: the frequency of fire weather index values that were historically extreme (in the top-5% during 1979-2000) increased by 29 days per year during the period 1979-2019. — That’s almost one extra month of extreme fire-prone weather each year!


See also this blog for national stats:


Prof Stefan Doerr, Editor-in-Chief International Journal of Wildland Fire; and Director of the Centre for Wildfire Research, Swansea University, said:

Do we know what has caused these wildfires?

“I have not heard about any specific causes of ignition for these fires.  The media often focus on these, however, during times of extreme fire weather (very dry vegetation, very high temperatures, low air humidity and strong winds) any ignition can rapidly turn into a fast moving wildfire.  That could be faulty power lines, small intentional fires to burn debris getting out of control, sparks from moving machinery or building activity, arson etc.  Focussing mainly on ignition sources (there will always be some) distracts from the main issues which are more flammable landscapes due to insufficient management of vegetation and more extreme weather due to climate change.

Is there anything specific to these being on islands?

“Like other Mediterranean regions and islands (e.g. Sardinina, Sicily), these island have ample flammable grass, shrub and conifer forest vegetation.  That fires occur there now is – at least in part – a matter of chance.  Other islands such as Crete are also at risk.

How unusual are wildfires like these in these places at this time of year?

“Not at all unusual.  We are in the prime fire season of the Mediterranean.  The Mediterranean type climate is the only one globally dominated by mild wet winters that allow vegetation to grow, and dry hot summers that dry out the live and dead vegetation, making the landscape especially flammable.  This summer temperatures have been extreme (just like 2022 or 2018), which has further heightened the normally high fire risk here.

Why are people being evacuated from some parts of these islands?

“After the disaster in Mati in 2018 (Attica), where over 100 people were killed by wildfire the Greek authority are especially cautious in protecting the public from potential wildfire impacts through evacuation.  Under these extreme conditions fires are especially difficult to predict and contain.  Early/precautionary evacuation is therefore the most appropriate action to reduce risk to lives – even where this comes with its own logistical challenges, costs, disruption and frustration by many of those affected.”



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