Wednesday, October 4, 2023
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Wildfires ravage southern Europe and raise political tensions

Wildfires are raging in Turkey, Greece and Italy as southern Europe broils in an extended extreme heat wave. Devastating flooding and fires are putting pressure on governments to do much more to fight global warming ahead of a major climate change summit.

CASTELBUONO, Sicily (CN) — Following catastrophic flooding last month, southern Europe is now in the grip of devastating wildfires that are burning vast areas of Turkey, Greece, Italy, Spain, Albania and Northern Macedonia.

Firefighters are battling numerous fires that have broken out across a Mediterranean basin that's been recording broiling temperatures for much of the past month, leaving an arid region even drier and more vulnerable to fires than usual.

Dangerous fires began erupting about two weeks after parts of Europe were inundated with catastrophic floodwaters caused by torrential rainfalls. Those floods killed more than 220 people, mostly in Germany and Belgium.

“We are fighting some of the worst wildfires we’ve seen in decades. But this summer’s floods, heat waves and forest fires can become our new normality,” said Virginijus Sinkevicius, the European Union's environment commissioner. “We must ask ourselves: is this the world we want to live in? We need immediate actions for nature before it’s too late.”

A string of disasters around the globe – including deadly flooding in China and horrific wildfires in the United States, Canada and Siberia – are dramatically raising the stakes for world leaders ahead of a crucial November climate change summit in Glasgow hosted by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Governments are expected to present updated plans on how they will cut down on heat-trapping gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. Around the globe, governments are seen as doing far too little to tackle global warming, but pressure is mounting along with the rising toll from natural disasters such as hurricanes, droughts, heat waves, wildfires and torrential rains.

“Some people make it seem as if we’re not doing enough to stop the climate crisis. But that’s not true. Because to not do enough, you have to do something,” Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenage climate activist, commented on Twitter. “And the truth is that we are basically not doing anything apart from 'creative carbon accounting' and creating loopholes.”

In the Mediterranean, Turkey is the scene of the worst blazes.

They have been burning for more than a week and flames are devouring coastal areas along the Aegean Sea, destroying villages, towns and tourist resorts. On Wednesday, fires engulfed an evacuated coal-powered thermal power plant in Milas, causing extensive damage and panic. So far, at least eight people have died and many more have been injured. Tens of thousands of people have evacuated.  

People watch a wildfire burning the forest near a tourist resort in Marmaris, Turkey, on Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021. (AP Photo/Emre Tazegul)

The disaster in Turkey has become politically volatile and dangerous too.

The out-of-control wildfires are badly hurting the image of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an authoritarian leader who is accused of undemocratically amassing power.

His government was slow to respond to the fires, appeared to be largely lacking plans to fight such massive fires and admitted that it lacked water-bombing airplanes to douse the blazes with. Residents in villages said they were left fighting the flames on their own. Turkey now is getting help from firefighters and airplanes sent from Russia, Ukraine, Iran, Qatar, Azerbaijan and the EU.

Ragip Soylu, the Turkey bureau chief for the Middle East Eye news outlet, wrote that residents in Antalya, a town hit by the fires, booed the Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and demanded more firefighting planes.

“Such an open confrontation with a top official in Erdogan's government is unheard of,” Soylu said.

Soylu said many in Turkey were unimpressed by images of a trip Erdogan made to Izmir’s Manavgat where “his huge convoy blocked roads, and traditional gestures such as throwing tea and toys to bystanders from the bus fell flat and angered many.”

Before the fires, Erdogan's popularity was already at the lowest it’s been since he took office in 2002. High inflation, a wobbly economy and the effects of the coronavirus pandemic are making more Turks sour on Erdogan, who faces reelection in 2023. Despite the slide in the polls, Erdogan remains very popular.

Perhaps to shift blame, Erdogan's government said it was looking into whether the PKK, a Kurdish militant separatist group labeled as terrorists by Turkey and the EU, was behind the fires. So far, the government has provided no evidence of this, but accusations are flying that the eruption of multiple fires around 17 cities within the space of two days was not a coincidence. There are reports of violent vigilante groups stopping vehicles in search of people they suspect to be PKK arsonists.

In one case, police say they know how a fire started. Turkish police said a 12-year-old boy upset over his parents seeking a divorce confessed to starting a fire, according to news reports.

The picture in Greece is dire too. Meteorologists said Greece was in the worst heat wave in more than 30 years and that it reported its highest temperature on record on Monday when it hit 115 degrees Fahrenheit. The country reported more than 100 fires in two days.

Towering fires advanced on northern suburbs of Athens and enveloped the Greek capital in smoke. Thousands of people have been evacuated and dozens of homes and businesses have been damaged.

Wildfires also are rampaging on the island of Evia, about 44 miles from Athens. Tourists and local residents were forced to flee by boat. Three monks at a monastery on the island refused to evacuate even though they were suffocating from smoke, news reports said. Fires were also threatening archeological sites at Ancient Olympia, a sanctuary and stadium where Greeks played the Olympics.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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