Climate Change Destroyed A Way Of Life On The Once-Idyllic Greek Island Of Evia
EVIA, Greece — Long before the fire, Giorgos Anagnostou could see the pine trees were vulnerable.
He spent 20 years tapping those trees in the thyme-scented mountains above his village for resin — his livelihood. Each year, this forest on Greece's second-largest island got drier. Pine needles piled up on that dry earth, creating kindling for summer wildfires that are sometimes set intentionally, to clear land for development.
"I'm not a fancy scientist but I'm not blind, I can see what climate change has done to my own backyard," Anagnostou says. "I worried all the time that we lived in a tinderbox. Yet [the Greek state] managed the forest as if nothing was changing. And now our trees have burned down."
Evia was the epicenter of catastrophic summer wildfires in the Mediterranean basin this summer that destroyed forests amid record heat waves that scientists say are fueled by global warming. In Greece, fires razed the thick, old-growth forest in Evia's north, where Anagnostou lives and works, as well as swaths of woodland around the capital, Athens, and in the south, near the site of the ancient Olympic Games.
Anagnostou and other residents on Evia say the destruction may have not been as catastrophic had their leaders — which, like most Greeks, say climate change is a grave threat — adopted policies to preserve precious woodland in the Mediterranean's fast-warming climate.
The Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, has apologized for his government's response to the fires. He told parliament late last month that the climate crisis "is forcing us to change everything; the way we produce agricultural products, how we move around, how we generate energy and the way we build our homes." He also created a ministry for climate crisis, appointing a former EU commissioner for crisis management, Christos Stylianides of Cyprus, to run it.
"The consequences of climate change have overtaken us, and we must accelerate major changes without delay," Stylianides told reporters earlier this month. "Disaster prevention and preparedness is the most effective weapon we have."
But the government's contrition and calls for change come too late for Anagnostou.
"Maybe climate change seemed abstract to the government until this summer," he says, fighting tears as he drives his truck past the charred remains of the pine trees he used to tap. "Because they did nothing to protect the forest. They let it burn. They let us burn."
Anagnostou is from the mountain village of Kourkouloi, nestled deep in the now-scorched forest. The village survives by collecting pine resin, which is sold for use in everything from paint to pharmaceuticals. The government has promised to work with locals to replant the forest and restore the village's way of life.
But Thanasis Agiasofitis says he and other pine-resin collectors will likely have to move to find work.
"We have families to support," Agiasofitis says. "We can't wait for the trees to grow, and we don't trust compensation from the government will materialize."
Agiasofitis and other villagers are angry. They believe the fires were set deliberately to cash in on development. Maybe developers wanted the land for wind turbines, they say, though the World Wildlife Fund Greece has dismissed this as a conspiracy theory.
Kostas Christodoulou, a 70-year-old farmer with a thick 19th-century-era mustache, says the fire trapped him as he was trying to save his flock — 400 sheep, who all perished. He survived by squeezing into a small cave.
"I've never seen anything like this fire," Christodoulou says, sighing. "It's going to end our way of life."
Residents of Rovies, a village down the mountain from Kourkouloi, are saying the same thing. Zoe Chalasti walks through the burnt remains of Noufaro (Water Lily), the patisserie she's run with her husband for 38 years. Part of the building has caved in. Broken glass and charred wood carpet the floor.
"We can't afford to rebuild," she says, passing scorched trays of blackened disks that used to be tiny, cream-filled, chocolate-glazed sponge cakes called kok. "This is finished."
Chalasti points to a row of honey jars — Evia used to be a main producer of Greek honey. The jars survived the fire but most of the island's beehives did not.
"Our bees have burned, and our trees have burned," she says, "and I'm struggling to picture what we can do to recover. What comes next?"
Eleven-year-old Kostas Steffos is asking himself the same question as he rides his bike past his burned home. The fire also destroyed his grandparents' house. But losing the forest, he says, feels like a death in the family.
"I rode my bike up there and played hide-and-seek with my friends," he says. "We gave the trees names, like they were people."
Kostas helped his father save the family sheep during the fire. The boy swatted at the flames with a makeshift broom.
"I wasn't scared," the boy insists. His father Stathis Steffos tries to joke that schools should now teach children how to fight fires. His laugh catches in his throat and comes out sounding like a muffled sob. He hugs his son.
"He helped me fight the fire but he cried when he saw what was happening to us," Stathis says. "He saw it firsthand."
In the waterfront village of Limni, the fire consumed the lush hills that seemed to hug the pretty stone houses that overlook the deep-blue sea. The forest attracted tourists as much as the shoreline. The trees are even painted on souvenir magnets sold in gift shops.
"People used to buy or rent holiday homes here because of the trees," says Maria Koukourikou, a realtor in Limni. "Now that landscape no longer exists. I am selling something that doesn't exist."
Athina Zioga moved to Limni several years ago to escape Athens, which climate change and poor urban planning turn into a sweltering furnace each summer. She hiked in the forest every day.
"I was coming here with my dog, and it was my oxygen," she says. "It was my power to live."
Zioga recorded videos of her walks past lush trees and cooling brooks. In one you can hear songbirds and a breeze she remembers as scented with wild oregano.
"Now you hear nothing," she says. "Silence, like death."
On a recent afternoon, she stands near a tree that marked her favorite path. The fire burned the tree into a stump.
"Everything smells like charcoal," she says. "I hate this smell."
The fire spared Zioga's house but she says she still feels homeless. "The four walls weren't my house. All this was my house," she says, her eyes fixed on the scorched forest. "And my house burned."
Villagers in Limni mourned the forest at a recent church service. They blamed arson and government incompetence for the scale of the disaster.
Like most Greeks, they don't trust politicians or the state to take care of problems. So they formed a volunteer firefighting team after a 2016 blaze. Village president Giannis Triandafyllou is one of its 10 members. He says they dispatched as soon as the first flames appeared.
"Then it very quickly turned into the biggest fire we had ever seen," he says. "It became a monster."
Another volunteer firefighter, Giorgos Kalomoiris, compared the fire to the mythological Lernaean Hydra, a serpentine, multi-headed sea beast that threatened the Greek hero Hercules. Each time Hercules chopped off one of the Hydra's heads, it grew two more.
The fire grew heads even faster than the Hydra, Kalomoiris says. "Cut off one head and four more would come at you," he says. "It was relentless. It was impossible. Even Hercules would have lost."
Mechanical engineer Stathis Tsamouras, who grew up in Limni, wants the catastrophe here to serve as a wake-up call for the entire country. In addition to drastically overhauling forest management policies to protect a land scorched by climate change, he wants laws against the "dirty business of arson" strengthened considerably.
"Fires are murderous, especially now," he says. "We have to throw the book at those who set them."
Tsamouras was 10 years old when a 1977 fire burned part of Limni's forest. He remembers watching elderly people weep as they climbed onto boats to evacuate.
"That was so traumatizing," he says. "Now my daughter has seen so much worse."
During the fire, Tsamouras fled home with his wife and their 9-year-old daughter Konstantina. They watched from a packed ferry as the forest that once held Limni in a lush embrace glowed orange in the night sky.
Konstantina held a pet carrier with her cat, Brave, and a bag with her stuffed animals Lili, Lulu, Mr. Doggie, Mr. Platypus and Lambie.
"I was crying," Konstantina recalls. "I was really scared that I would never see Limni again, and our house."
She is relieved she could come home but she avoids looking at the scorched hills. They remind her that growing up here has changed for her, "maybe forever," she says. Limni will also get hotter now without the trees, and the summer heat already makes her feel "like my brain's crazy, with like 2,000 layers of blankets on me."
Konstantina's mother, Madison Brown, is visibly pained when she hears her daughter worry about the future. But Brown, who grew up helping her family fight bushfires in the Australian Outback, also wants to help the girl adapt to the new normal.
"Climate change is a fact of life now," she says. "The point of no return has happened. We can't hide that from our children."
Back in the village of Kourkouloi, pine-resin collector Giorgos Anagnostou thinks about his own daughter, who is 3.
"I wonder if she will ever see anything of the world we lost here — the wildflowers and tall trees and sense that we belong to the land," he says. "I don't want it to be too late for her."
Anagnostou walks up a mountain that he's been climbing since he was a boy. The view from the top is devastating
"This used to be paradise," he says. "And now it's hell."
The fall and winter rains will wash away the burnt stench of this hellish summer. But heavy rain will likely cause more destruction.
Anagnostou looks at the villages below. Now that the trees are gone, he wonders, what will stop the floods?