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Wildfires: 'a new part of our reality' in warming Europe

by Rachel Savage | @rachelmsavage | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 4 August 2021 12:30 GMT

Volunteer firefighters try to extinguish a wildfire at Varympompi suburb north of Athens, Greece, August 3, 2021. REUTERS/Giorgos Moutafis

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Governments need to be better prepared for wildfires and flooding caused by extreme weather, says the Red Cross’ Europe director.

Wildfires are burning across southern Europe, a new fact of life in fast-warming Europe, with eight dead in Turkey, 100-plus fires in Greece and mass evacuations across Italy.

For the woman leading the Red Cross in Europe, which has been spearheading rescue efforts, the spate of summer wildfires - as well as floods - is just "a new part of our reality" as the impact of climate change hits home.

"We can see that this is only getting bigger - the extreme weather is happening and happening frequently," said Birgitte Bischoff Ebbesen, Europe director for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), whose volunteers are on the frontline.

We asked Ebbesen to tell us more about fire fighting and how Red Cross rescue missions affect volunteers and victims alike.

How ready are you to handle the worsening fires in Europe?

We have branches at local levels that are able to act... from evacuating people to knowing whom are the most vulnerable in the community to get them out of houses.

But volunteers also know where the evacuation points will be and to provide (people) with food and water and initial psycho-social support. Many are in deep shock when they see their surroundings or their houses burning and have to leave.

Where are your volunteers most active?

It's Greece, Italy, Russia, Spain and Turkey where we're responding to several wildfires - and it is the very high temperatures, the wind and the very dry conditions that have caused (us to mount) these rescues, both by sea and by land.

Thousands of people are fleeing for their lives. They have very few belongings with them, just a few clothes or something that they managed to take on their way out.

How do they help?

You have to get people out when fire is imminent, going and knocking on people's doors.

In Turkey alone, we have more than 2,000 staff and volunteers on the ground. And what they're doing... is providing food, through mobile kitchens, distributing water and hygiene kits.

And then shelter and also psycho-social support, both to the affected communities but actually also to the firefighters themselves, because it has been quite traumatic.

Then, in Greece, the Hellenic Red Cross and the lifeguards have been evacuating people (by boat) that were trapped in the settlements, on islands.

(In) Italy, it is has been in Sardinia where we are distributing water and food and even have delivered animal feed to the farmers as the fires were continuing.

In Russia, Karelia, Red Cross volunteers are distributing food, water, bedding, hygiene kits and personal protective equipment, as well as providing psycho-social support.

What more should authorities do?

There is an urgent need for better support for anticipatory approaches... where we prepare people to receive assistance ahead of a predictable crisis... It can be two days or one week. If it is extreme heat, for example, we will know.

If you act before, then you do save money and lives. But also people can secure more of their own belongings and then their livelihoods and their houses.

To prevent forest fires... that will require making some deep, structural changes in the forests themselves.

People living very close to the forests (need to be warned)... that they are actually living in a place (at risk) and that they know what to do when that comes.

Many authorities are seeing that maybe they were not sufficiently prepared this time.

How can people better protect themselves?

Not having trees in front of the community, having the forest as far away as possible. You can dig a ditch in front of your property.

It depends on how much time you have before this fire is coming, because it often comes at speed and it might be too late... You have to focus on your own life and your family's life.


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This interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.   

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