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Greece wildfire evacuees find ‘safe space’ in Corfu church

26 July 2023


A man walks away from wildires on the Greek island of Rhodes, on Tuesday

A man walks away from wildires on the Greek island of Rhodes, on Tuesday

THE influence of climate change on heatwaves is “something we know with the same kind of certainty that we know the earth isn’t flat”, a climatologist from the research group World Weather Attribution has said about the wildfires raging in Greece.

Dr Friederike Otto, a co-lead for the global group, told Radio 4’s World at One on Tuesday that it was impossible for such an event to occur without human-induced climate change.

Burned areas on the Greek island of Rhodes increased from about 6.6 square miles on Thursday of last week to about 35.4 square miles on Sunday, monitoring from the Copernicus Emergency Management service has shown.

There has been no rain for seven weeks in parts of Rhodes, and drought is acknowledged to have made the island more vulnerable to wildfires. European monitors have been detecting dangerously low levels of moisture in the small logs and compact layers of rotting pine needles that cover the mountainsides. Winds of more than 35 kph carried burning foliage across the mountain tops.

The European Forest Fire Information System has said that nearly 150 square miles of Greece have been affected so far this year, with concern for extreme fire behaviour extending to Sicily, the south-eastern region of Italy, mainland Sardinia, and the south-western coast of Turkey, as well as some of the other Greek islands, and mainland Greece.

In Rhodes, 20,000 people have had to leave their homes and hotels, and a further 2500 have been evacuated from Corfu. Firefighters and local volunteers had succeeded in containing the wildfires that had affected both islands, the Chaplain of Holy Trinity, Corfu, the Revd Julian Wilson, said on Monday.

Although 20,000 acres are estimated to have been burned, they had managed to avert damage to property and life, he said, referring to the 2000 people evacuated on Sunday night as a precaution, and the number of planes, firefighters, and fire engines brought into action.

“Because it was at night, they were unable to use helicopters and planes until seven o’clock on Monday morning. So you can imagine the challenge in dealing with this — on foot, in the dark, during the night,” he said. “This is exacerbated because the water planes are in other parts of Greece; so chemicals are used ahead of the fire to prevent the trees’ catching.”

Holy Trinity, Corfu, is about 15km from the fires; but the flames and smoke from near the top of the Pantokrator, the highest point in the centre of the north, could be seen across the island, he said. One blessing had been the absence of wind on Monday, which had helped to slow the spread, but ash was on cars even in the middle of the island, up to 15km away.

There was an atmosphere of anxiety, Mr Wilson said: people were thinking about those who were dealing with the fires, but life was carrying on. More locations on the island were being evacuated on Tuesday. Residents of Imerolia were instructed to head to the port of Kassiopi, indicating a struggle from the air to contain the fire, which seemed to be moving to the north-east and burning dense vegetation, Mr Wilson said on Tuesday. “In most cases, the fire is burning in places that are difficult or impossible to access by a fire engine.”

The church was making contact with people who might be in the affected areas, and, once the immediate threat had passed, was offering the chance for anyone to talk and pray if they needed to.

“The church does offer a ‘safe space’ listening service, which can be very helpful if there are fears and anxieties that need to be expressed and prayed for,” he said. He described the church as “a very relaxed and welcoming place in a great location in the centre of the town. So if anyone on the island is feeling stressed about the situation and would just like to just be among friends, come up. We’re here, and you’re welcome, and the air conditioning will be on.”

Fires could start easily, and people should be extra vigilant when they were in the very dry olive groves, he warned. They needed to have the utmost respect for the island, or for wherever they were travelling in Greece. “The best thing that people can do for now is to follow the advice of the authorities and to trust their expertise,” he said.

Travel companies continue to repatriate thousands who were holidaying on Rhodes.

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