The Meltemi blowing non-stop, the Mediterranean scrub dry and not very humid, the hypothesis of an accident that may have caused the flames. At the base of the tragic fires in Greece - to Rhodes where almost 30 thousand people have already been evacuated ea Corfu and Euboea where the flames persist in these hours - there could be more contributing causes, explains the fire expert Luca Tonarelli, member of SISEF (Italian Society of Forestry and Forest Ecology) and technical director of the Forest Fire Training Center of the Tuscany Region. We asked him what the current and future criticalities are, also for Italy and the other Mediterranean countries, in this scorching summer crossed by continuous heat waves.
Greece, flames out of control on the island of Rhodes: tourists and inhabitants evacuated by ship
How long will it take to put out the fires on Rhodes and the other islands?
"The other fires are under development but by now the one in Rhodes is quite large and extensive: in order to be able to stop it, a lot will depend on the super-critical weather conditions of the moment. As often happens in Greece, with particularly dry winds and very low humidity, containing the fires is very difficult. Furthermore, in Greece there is a very approach based on emergency management: when large spaces burn, there is a strong activation of aircraft, but we know very well that they are not enough and this is a problem. In fact, more work on the ground and above all more prevention is needed. Unfortunately, as of today European aid with the Civil Protection mechanism is instead mainly aid linked to the movement of air fleets and this has a major limitation".
Why do such devastating fires often occur in the Greek islands?
"They are more and more frequent. In Greece, the woods burn mainly in conditions of the African anticyclone, like now, which is characterized by a north wind that is the Meltemi, a hyper-dry wind that often lasts day and night. In Greece, in many cases we see images of nocturnal fires of the burning islands: this is because even in the dark there continue the conditions of dry wind that lasts over time and provides no respite. And everything is without recovery of humidity. With the current high temperatures, therefore, it becomes more complex, even if the temperatures are not the most decisive aspect".
In what sense are they not?
"For example, in Italy we have had proof that temperatures are not the decisive factor: the heat waves of these days have been frightening but fortunately they have not led to major criticalities so far because the rains in April and May have given us calm fuel conditions, especially in the south. Last year, on the other hand, it was worse due to the drought: the dry and dry spring led to extreme conditions and consequent fires. This year, however, in certain areas there was an abundance of rain outside the statistics, which allows for a different margin and higher humidity. Of course, then we will have to see how everything will evolve in the coming weeks".
How much does the climate crisis affect fires?
"The climate crisis is certainly making itself felt due to the frequency and intensity of certain weather phenomena. But I would say that it is above all linked to the real difficulty of extinguishing fires because if the conditions were such as to lead to too dry vegetation then a completely different energy is needed to extinguish the fire and the systems find it hard to withstand this challenge".
What could have been the causes of the flames in Rhodes?
"Let's say it's still too early to know. Natural phenomena? Very difficult. However, between the natural phenomenon and malicious intent there is a large statistic of fires linked by involuntary aspects, carelessness, underestimation of the risk. Many times, for example, the use of open flames in the area is a cause: for example for some works, as happened in Spain in recent months, originating from people who used blowtorch to weld gates. If the weather conditions are critical and the vegetation is dry, any inattention in any job it can be decisive. In islands like Rhodes, with a lot of people and extremely touristy, it ranges from the barbecue to the problem with the scooter to any chance: any accident with those fuel conditions can give life to a huge fire".
Greece, the images of the vast fire that broke out in Corfu
A new peak in temperatures is expected in Greece tomorrow, could conditions worsen?
"It's certainly a worrying figure and the fires don't seem to be decreasing, but a lot will depend on the wind. We'll see"
Is the one in Rhodes statistically one of the worst fires?
"In terms of civil protection problems and the number of evacuees, it recorded some of the most important data. But we are not yet talking about fires with capacities such as those of 2021 and 2022. Unfortunately, as the Mati fire of 2018 in which 102 people died in one hour reminds us, Greece has an urban fabric truly mixed with woods and Mediterranean scrub, often in a reckless way and without prevention. We technicians have been to Mati several times, including last year, to analyze the details of the fires: in the criticality of the place we seem to see that little has been learned from the lesson. Many Greek towns are in the exact same situation: scrub and highly flammable pine forests completely mixed with the urban fabric, houses, campsites and this means that everything is enormously more complicated".
How should those leaving for Greece assess the fire situation?
"It takes attention. I wouldn't say leave or not leave, but it must be specified that certain situations must always be evaluated. Me, it will be for my work, wherever I go, for example, I look at possible escape routes. A small but useful attention".
Finally, a look at the coming weeks. What are the risks for Italy?
"Currently there is a large amount of monitoring in progress: Italy, Spain, Portugal are experiencing for now a season that is out of statistics, positive, due to the few fires. But the phase is critical: not so much for the risk index, but for the current percentage between live and dead fuel. At the moment there is still a lot of 'living' on the ground, i.e. the greenery, the grass, the meadows. As long as this exists, we are calmer: however, if high temperatures and drought continue, it is probable that this live material will die and therefore a moment will begin - which we estimate it could be in over two weeks - of greater risk of fires and a change in danger. If it rains and a little humidity remains, we will probably still avert the fires, if, on the other hand, there will be waves of heat and dry conditions, we too will enter a decidedly critical phase".