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Southern Europe and North Africa Count Heavy Cost of Wildfires


As extreme heat recedes, Italy, Greece, Portugal, Spain and Algeria reflect on lives lost, environmental damage and costs to livelihoods

After more than a week of fierce wildfires, once again southern Europe is counting the heavy costs to livelihoods and its environment, as the extreme heat recedes and temperatures drop by up to 10C.

In Italy, at least eight people have died as two extreme weather events have divided the country with wildfires in the south and violent storms in the north.

An 88-year-old woman was reported to have died on Tuesday in San Martino delle Scale, a few miles from Palermo, Sicily, after disruption caused by the fires prevented emergency services from reaching her in time. In the afternoon, the bodies of two people, aged about 75 and 77, were found in a house hit by a wildfire in Cinisi, near the airport of the Sicilian capital.

Italian firefighters said they tackled nearly 1,400 fires between Sunday and Tuesday, including 650 in Sicily and 390 in Calabria, the southern mainland region where a bedridden 98-year-old man was killed as fire consumed his home.

According to an initial estimate made by the regional civil protection agency, the fires that have devastated Sicily in recent days have caused more than €60m (£51m) worth of damage.

Damage to agriculture caused by fires and the intense heatwave amounted to about €200m, as quantified by the provincial Agriculture Inspectorates.

According to local authorities, more than 693 hectares (1,712 acres) of woodland on the island have been totally destroyed.

In the north of Italy, storms in Lombardy claimed four lives, including that of a 16-year-old girl who was killed during a camping trip in Cedelogo when a tree fell on her tent. A 58-year-old woman died after being crushed by a tree in Monza, and a couple, both aged 19, died after the driver lost control of their car on a slippery road in Varese.

On Wednesday, Giorgia Meloni’s government approved €10m to compensate tourists whose trips to Sicily have been disrupted by the fallout from the heatwave.

On Thursday, and for the first time since the extreme heatwave began, no Italian city was on red alert.

In the last week, more than 35,000 hectares (86,500 acres) of forest and other land has been scorched by fire in Greece, the conservation organisation the WWF said, with authorities evacuating more than 20,000 people from homes and resorts in the south of the holiday island of Rhodes.

Two firefighting pilots died when their water-bombing plane crashed on a hillside near the town of Karystos on the island of Evia, east of Athens. The body of a 41-year-old farmer, missing since Sunday, was also found in a shack in a remote area.

Close to 3,000 tourists had returned home by plane as of Tuesday, according to figures from the transport ministry. Tour operators have cancelled upcoming trips.

Greece depends more than any other Mediterranean country on summer tourism and the lost revenue is incalculable.

The tourism minister, Olga Kefalogianni, in an interview with the BBC on Monday, urged visitors to keep calm and continue their holidays in Rhodes, while the vice-president for the Greek Tourism Confederation, Panagiotis Tokouzis, said in despair: “It’s raining cancellations.”

Greek tour operators fear the fires may have damaged Greece’s image as a tourist haven. The recent mass exit of people from their houses and tourists from hotels and resorts has been described by officials as the country’s largest evacuation in recent history.

Temperatures are expected to drop on Thursday, but near-gale winds could complicate efforts to douse the fires that have reached the outskirts of Athens, disrupting highway traffic and rail services.

Water-dropping helicopters and a ground crew scrambled early on Thursday to a blaze in Kifissia, just north of Athens, which was quickly put out. Meanwhile, the state broadcaster, ERT, said explosions were heard at an ammunition factory in Nea Anchialos in central Greece.

The rapidly spreading wildfire at the centre of Spain’s island of Gran Canaria prompted authorities to remove several hundred villagers, shut three roads and deploy firefighting helicopters. Antonio Morales, head of the island council of Gran Canaria, said the blaze had so far burned through 200 hectares of forest.

In Portugal, which is experiencing a widespread drought affecting 90% of the country, hundreds of firefighters scrambled to put out flames near the coastal town of Cascais, west of Lisbon, with strong winds complicating efforts. The wildfire started in a mountainous area of the Sintra-Cascais natural park, which covers about 145 sq km (56 sq miles). More than 600 firefighters were brought in. Water-bombing planes also battled the blaze but had to stop operating as the night set in.

Algerians in the fire-ravaged north-east were on Thursday counting the cost of fires that killed 34 people, destroyed homes and reduced vast forest areas to scorched wastelands. The wildfires raged for days, mainly through the mountain forests of the Kabylia region on the Mediterranean coast, fanned by winds during blistering summer heat.

“Many people are traumatised. Our aim is to provide moral support and psychological care,” said a member of a psychiatric support unit sent to the disaster area.

Water and electricity remained cut off in wide areas but aid supplies were arriving.

The interior minister, Brahim Merad, said local authorities had been instructed to assess the damage and losses and to “identify the victims in order to compensate them as soon as possible”.

Witnesses described fleeing walls of flames that raged “like a blowtorch”, destroying homes and coastal resorts and turning vast forest areas into blackened wastelands.

On Wednesday, local media reflected anger about the devastating blazes with the TSA news site asking: “Why couldn’t we avoid this disaster?”

Source: The Guardian

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