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Firefighters struggle to contain severe wildfires in northern Greece


Wildfires in northern Greece have now burned through an area roughly the size of New York City. The fires in this border region with Turkey are the largest the European Union has ever recorded. As Lidia Emmanouilidou reports, many are asking what more could be done to prevent and fight them.

LIDIA EMMANOUILIDOU, BYLINE: It's just past noon in the village of Avlonas, and the air is still smoky from the fires that surrounded and tore through parts of the village.


EMMANOUILIDOU: "We haven't slept in 10 days," says retiree Despina Pantagelou. Her house is still standing, but her dog was severely injured and probably won't survive. She almost bursts into tears as she explains that things would be way worse if locals like the village chairman hadn't stepped in to extinguish the fires.

PANTAGELOU: (Speaking Greek).

EMMANOUILIDOU: "We could have all died," she says. People in this village lost homes, warehouses, wheat and sunflower fields, cows and sheep.


EMMANOUILIDOU: At the fire service headquarters in Alexandroupolis, the regional capital, the scene is somewhat chaotic. Crews are suiting up, filling water tanks and scrambling to get to new and reignited fires. Firefighters have been struggling to suppress uncontrollable blazes for more than a week.

KARIOFILIS LIOLIOSIDIS: We're trying for the best. We have a lot of problems.

EMMANOUILIDOU: Kariofilis Lioliosidis heads the regional firefighters association. He says those problems include dry conditions after successive heat waves, also strong and shifting winds which fanned and spread the flames. But the biggest problem, your city says, is firefighter shortages. He says crews here have reached their limits.

LIOLIOSIDIS: Our mind and our soul want to go to fire, but our body is very tired.

EMMANOUILIDOU: Some say the Greek government hasn't done enough to prepare. Nick Malkoutzis is with the political and economic analysis website Macropolis.

NICK MALKOUTZIS: The government's line is that it's done as much as it could but simply that the threat has become bigger as a result of the extreme weather.

EMMANOUILIDOU: Greece's right-leaning government has suggested that undocumented migrants crossing from the nearby Turkish border may have ignited the fires. Malkoutzis says finger-pointing and political sparring over wildfire preparation and response are not new.

MALKOUTZIS: This back-and-forth has existed for for decades without any coalescing over some kind of national plan.

EMMANOUILIDOU: He says sadly, that means Greece still doesn't have a clear plan on how to protect its forests and how to prepare for what are bound to be more challenging conditions in the future because of climate change.

VALIA KELIDOY: I would like to don't be in this condition, of course, our place - so to prepare for this.

EMMANOUILIDOU: Valia Kelidoy helps run her family's olive oil business, called Kyklopas. I meet her at their factory and storage facility, where they have more than 30 tons of extra virgin olive oil. At least 1,000 of her family's 13,000 olive trees have burned. On her drive to see the damage to their olive grove nearby, Kelidoy lets out a deep sigh.

KELIDOY: (Speaking Greek).

EMMANOUILIDOU: "It hurts my soul," she says. Kelidoy says extreme temperatures caused by climate change were already affecting olive tree yields. Back in the village of Avlonas, George Hatzigeorgiou with the village chairman says other industries like logging will also suffer.


EMMANOUILIDOU: He says he was almost done setting up hiking trails on the village's mountains, a project he hoped would boost the region's nascent tourism industry. Visitors had started to come, but now the mountains have burned. And he says the impact on the local economy is hard for him to fathom. For NPR News, I'm Lydia Emmanouilidou in Avlonas, Greece.

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Lydia Emmanouilidou