© Reuters. Flames rise as a wildfire burns near the village of Vati, on the island of Rhodes, Greece, July 25, 2023. REUTERS/Nicolas Economou
By Fedja Grulovic and Lamine Chikhi
RHODES/ALGIERS (Reuters) – A plane fighting wildfires in Greece crashed on Tuesday as large areas of the Mediterranean sweltered under an intense summer heatwave, with Algeria battling to control an inferno that has killed at least 34 people.
The plane, which had been dropping water, came down on a hillside close to the town of Karystos on the Greek island of Evia, east of Athens. There was no immediate word on the fate of the two airmen on board.
Greece has been particularly hard hit by fires, with the authorities evacuating more than 20,000 people in recent days from the holiday island of Rhodes.
Another blaze caused the temporary closure of Palermo airport on the southern Italian island of Sicily on Tuesday. Further north, the weather broke and an intense overnight storm tore off roofs and brought down trees in cities including Milan, killing two women in that part of the country.
Extreme weather throughout July has caused havoc across the planet, with record temperatures in China, the United States and southern Europe sparking forest fires, water shortages and a rise in heat-related hospital admissions.
Without human-induced climate change, the events this month would have been “extremely rare”, according to a study by World Weather Attribution, a global team of scientists that examines the role played by climate change in extreme weather.
The heat, with temperatures topping 40 Celsius (104 Fahrenheit), is well in excess of what usually attracts tourists who flock to southern European beaches.
It was even hotter in North Africa, with temperatures of 49 Celsius recorded in some cities in Tunisia.
Algeria was fighting to contain devastating forest fires along its Mediterranean coast on Tuesday, in a blaze which has killed at least 34 people. Fanned by strong winds, fires also forced the closure of two border crossings with neighbouring Tunisia.
SAVING THE HOTEL
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said his country was one of those on the front line against climate change, with no easy solution to halt its effects.
“I will state the obvious: in the face of what the entire planet is facing, especially the Mediterranean which is a climate change hot-spot, there is no magical defence mechanism, if there was we would have implemented it,” Mitsotakis said.
The fires will deal a blow to a tourist industry that is a mainstay of the Greek economy. It accounts for 18% of gross domestic product and one in five jobs, with an even greater contribution on islands such as Rhodes.
Lefteris Laoudikos, whose family owns a small hotel in the Rhodes seaside resort town of Kiotari, one of the epicentres of a fire over the weekend, said its 200 guests – mainly from Germany, Britain and Poland – evacuated in rental cars.
He said his father, cousin and two others were trying to douse the flames using a nearby water tank.
“My father saved the hotel. I called him, and he didn’t want to leave. He told me ‘if I leave there will be no hotel’.”
Malta, another major Mediterranean holiday destination, suffered a raft of power cuts across the country, affecting its largest hospital, after a week-long heatwave.
Scientists have described extreme heat as a “silent killer” taking a heavy toll on the poor, the elderly and those with existing medical conditions.
Research published this month said as many as 61,000 people may have died in Europe’s sweltering heatwaves last summer, suggesting preparedness efforts are falling fatally short.
The heat has also caused large-scale crop damage and livestock losses, the World Weather Attribution scientists said, with U.S. corn and soybean crops, Mexican cattle, southern European olives as well as Chinese cotton all severely affected.
Residents of Milan were surveying the mess after the dramatic overnight storm and winds of over 100 kilometres per hour.
“It all happened around 4 or 5 AM (0200-0300 GMT) this morning, it was very short but very intense, it knocked down several trees…with the wind gusts they took off and broke up,” witness Roberto Solfrizzo, 66, told Reuters.