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Greece: Can it contain largest wildfire ever recorded in EU?

Florian Schmitz in northern Greece
August 31, 2023

The wildfires raging in northern Greece are causing unprecedented devastation to nature reserves and livelihoods. Some Greeks have accused migrants of starting the blaze.

Burnt trees and ash-covered earth in the Evros region, northeastern Greece, August 27, 2023
At least 770 square kilometers of forest, agricultural land and natural habitats went up in flames in the Evros region in just a few daysImage: Florian Schmitz/DW

Valia Kelidou still can't get to grips with what has happened.

Before the wildfire came, her family owned over 12,000 olive trees on the outskirts of the city of Alexandroupolis in northern Greece. Now, many of the trees have been reduced to smoking, black stumps, and the ground in the olive grove is covered in a fine layer of white ash. Although the fire has long since moved on, the acrid stench of smoke and burning still hangs in the air.

Over a thousand of Kelidou's trees were destroyed in the blaze. "We built up a business here, exporting all over the world. Our oil wins prestigious awards. And then you just stand there and see the flames coming closer and watch everything you built go up in flames," she told DW.

Olive producer Valia Kelidou stands in front of olive trees in one of her family's olive groves; burnt trees can be seen in the distance
Valia Kelidou from Alexandroupolis estimates she has lost 1,000 olive trees to the wildfireImage: Florian Schmitz/DW

Forest fires are nothing new in this hilly, wooded area along the Evros River, which forms the border between Turkey and Greece. In recent years, however, the fires have steadily got worse.

Massive area destroyed by fire

It's now official: The wildfire currently raging in the Evros region is the largest in the history of the European Union, according to Copernicus, the Earth observation section of the EU's space program which has analyzed satellite images of the region.

At least 770 square kilometers (around 300 square miles) have been devoured by the conflagration in the country's northeast.

The university hospital in Alexandroupolis, not far from Kelidou's olive groves, had to be evacuated when the flames reached the grounds of the building. Schools and homes have been damaged in the fire, and numerous helpers were injured while fighting the flames.

Fires compound troubles for struggling businesses

"Luckily, there was no fire in the old olive grove, which is one of the oldest in the Mediterranean. There are more than 2,000 trees there, all of which are over 1,000 years old," said Kelidou. Nevertheless, her world has been abruptly turned upside down by the wildfire.

A group of firefighters sits on the ground during a break, Evros region, northeastern Greece, August 27, 2023
In recent weeks, firefighters in northern Greece have been battling the flames nonstopImage: Florian Schmitz/DW

But even before the fire came, her business had been hit by the double whammy of the climate crisis and inflation. Kelidou and other olive producers affected by the wildfires will now have to plant new trees. She estimates that it will be 20 years before the new trees start producing normal yields.

The Evros region is already considered economically weak, and the wildfires will undoubtedly exacerbate the situation.

Kelidou is angry — at the authorities and, above all, at the politicians. "Evacuations can't be the only solution," she said. Like others affected by the blaze, she doesn't just want to abandon her property to the flames; she wants better prevention.

"I'm not a member of the fire service and I'm not a forestry scientist either, but when there are fires all over the country, then it must be possible to say in advance what has to be done," she said.

Nature reserve in flames

Several wildfires are currently raging in different parts of northern Greece. At one point, some were so close to each other that firefighters feared they might join to create an inferno.

A dirt track winds through a landscape of burnt trees and ash-covered soil. In the distance, smoke rises above the hills
Parts of the Dadia National Park have been ravaged by the recent wildfiresImage: Achilleas Chiras/AP/picture alliance

In addition to the fire around Alexandroupolis, there were blazes in the Rhodope Mountains and in Dadia National Park, the only nature reserve of its kind in Europe. The park, famed for its rich and diverse flora and fauna, is popular with rare birds of prey, who build their nests in the old pine trees.

It will take some time to put an exact figure on the damage caused by the fires, said biologist Sylvia Zakkak, deputy head of the park's administration. She said one thing, however, is already clear: A large section of the park has been affected by the fire. But not everything was mature forest, she added, which means certain parts will recover faster than others.

Zakkak said the priority now is to take short-term remedial action. "At the moment, we are providing food and water for the wild animals, so they don't leave the region," she told DW, adding that the administration is in close contact with experts in other nature reserves.

Many of the birds of prey had already migrated to Africa before the fire came. It remains to be seen how they react when they return to Dadia to breed. "It's a challenge to protect the forest. There are a lot of stakeholders," she said.

Violence against refugees increases

The wildfires have not only destroyed nature reserves and livelihoods, they have also reignited an already heated debate about migration.

The region around the Evros River has for decades been part of a route used by migrants wanting to reach the EU via Turkey. Due to repeated incidents of pushbacks from Greece to Turkey and because violence, sexual assault and theft are not rare occurrences, refugees have started taking lesser-known paths through the region.

A burnt corral on a hill surrounded by burnt trees, near the village of Avantas in the region of Evros
The bodies of 18 people, who the authorities assume were migrants, were found at this corral after the wildfireImage: Alexandros Avramidis/REUTERS

In order to avoid the authorities and illegal deportation, many of them have been hiding in the forest.

For 18 refugees — whose charred remains were found in Dadia National Park on August 22 — the forest they hoped would protect them turned into a death trap.

Their deaths left many in Greece unmoved. Refugees passing through Evros are often referred to as "lathrometanastis," which translates as "illegal migrants," a negatively charged term in Greek that dehumanizes the refugees and puts them on par with smuggled cigarettes or alcohol.

Vigilante groups hunt refugees

But the wildfires have caused more than just heated debate. "I bet they're hunting migrants," said a taxi driver in Alexandroupolis on the weekend after the corpses were found in the forest, pointing at a car that had just overtaken other vehicles on the road at high speed. "They set the fire," he told DW.

The fear of wildfires has turned into hatred. Victims are declared perpetrators — and are hunted down. Just a few days ago, a man was arrested for locking 13 migrants into a trailer. He justified his actions by accusing the migrants of setting the forest fires.

In a video he had shared on social media, the man proudly opens the door of the trailer, allowing light to fall on the face of a frightened man. Behind him, the outline of other men can be seen. One user wrote beneath the video: "Don't round them up. Torch them!"

Government condemns violence against migrants

Government spokesperson Pavlos Marinakis condemned the man's actions. He said the police and judiciary were doing their work, and that anyone who does not respect the law will be prosecuted. But the growth in vigilante justice shouldn't come as a surprise to the authorities.

Lena Karamanidou grew up near the Evros River and now conducts research into migrant issues. For years, she has been studying the rising hatred of refugees in Greece.

Wildfires in northern Greece: Living with fire and ashes

In February and March 2020, when thousands of migrants were stranded between the Turkish–Greek border, "civilian 'arrested' and prevented people on the move from crossing the border, often with violence," she said.

"Back then, state institutions and the media presented these actions as legitimate defense of Evros, the border and the nation against the 'hybrid' 'asymmetrical' threats of migration and Turkey," she said, adding that the perpetrators of violence are now articulating the same logic. 

"While the recent violent actions are dismissed by the state as criminal, this violence has been fostered by the state itself," she said.

This article was originally written in German.

Portrait of a man with brown hair and a beard
Florian Schmitz Reporter with a focus on Greece