From Europe to Canada to Hawaii, images capture the devastating power of wildfires
The destructive power of wildfires has been a hallmark of a summer full of extreme weather events.
Dozens of people have died on multiple continents. The fires reduced homes and businesses to rubble. The thick smoke darkened the sky and carried particulate pollution thousands of miles from its source.
It’s a shocking pattern that climate scientists around the world say has been exacerbated and exacerbated by human-caused global warming. Greenhouse gas emissions have greatly increased the chances of hot and dry weather, which increases the potential for severe fires. While sound management can help – for example, controlling fires and clearing overgrown forests – it is not always enough to beat the odds as climate change causes fire seasons to start earlier and last longer.
The harm to humans will be great. Beyond the immediate consequences, experts say exposure to wildfire smoke can cause long-term problems for human health, with effects on the respiratory system such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, as well as effects on heart, brain and kidney function. The psychological damage can also last a lifetime. People who are in the direct path of a wildfire may suffer post-traumatic stress or struggle with their mental health after losing loved ones, homes or livelihoods.
Fire is just one facet of climate change, which is also driving extreme heat, storms, catastrophic floods and other freak weather. But the dramatic images of this summer’s inferno, from flames to ashes, are a stark reminder of how much things have changed, and how much we still can lose.
Winds ignite flames in Greece and Turkey
A fire in northeastern Greece on Tuesday killed 18 people, believed to be migrants who crossed the border from Turkey, as villages in the country’s northwest province were also evacuated to protect people from wildfires. In the Greek city of Alexandroupolis, health authorities partially evacuated a hospital, and other flames near the capital moved to Parnitha National Park, a green area northwest of Athens.
Firefighters in Greece faced more than 350 fires over the course of five days. High winds made the task more difficult, authorities said, and the hot and dry summer conditions were among the worst since meteorological records were kept. Across Europe, many regions experienced an extremely hot summer, with global temperatures rising to an all-time high in July.
The Greek government plans to impose tougher penalties for arson in the aftermath of the damage, but excess heat caused by climate change is also to blame. And the fires are adding to the warming cycle: Greece experienced its highest levels of wildfire-related emissions on record last July, according to data from the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service, part of the European Union’s Earthwatch programme.
Panic and grief over the devastated island of Maui
It started with a fire overnight in Kola. Then a grass fire ripped through the island near Lahaina in the early morning and passed the containment line by the afternoon.
Without any warning, residents say they were unable to save many of their neighbours, including children. People tried to rush out of Lahaina, though closed roads hampered evacuation efforts. Some, trapped in their cars, jumped over a jetty in the rough seas to escape.
Eventually, the wreckage became clear: Historic Lahaina became the site of the deadliest wildfire in the United States in more than 100 years.
Climate change and changes in land use have exacerbated the cost of human error in this disaster, researchers say, as wildfires, storms, floods and other disasters increase in Hawaii. Sudden droughts, which occurred this summer likely as a result of global warming, can create an abundance of dry grass on the islands in a short period of time. And with some farms shifting to cattle ranching, more areas are now becoming a source of fuel, fueling the problem even further.
President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden took an aerial tour of the devastation in Hawaii on Monday. In his remarks in Lahaina, Biden referred to the burnt but surviving banyan tree that is beloved and sacred by many in the island community. Biden said the damage is massive and the cleanup process will be difficult and long.
But he added that one Native Hawaiian chief he spoke to described the tree as “a diamond in the midst of hope.”
Huge fire in the Canary Islands
Like most of mainland Spain, the popular tourist destination Tenerife has been experiencing drought for the past several years due to the effects of climate change on regional weather patterns. These changes created the perfect ignition of what police said was an arson bushfire that spiraled out of control over the course of several days.
Firefighters were able to limit the damage, no injuries were reported and no homes were burned as of Monday, but access remains difficult, especially in steep and rocky mountainous areas. Meanwhile, thousands of people on the island have been evacuated or ordered to stay in their homes.
In addition, Spain is still experiencing another summer heatwave, with temperatures soaring to 111°F (44°C) in some parts of the country.
More than a thousand fires across Canada
This is the worst summer in Canada Forest fire season Dozens of cities across North America have woken up to see – and smell – massive plumes of smoke extending far beyond the forests where they first erupted. Regions closer to the poles are experiencing accelerated changes due to global warming, and Canada is no exception. Summers are more intense and winters are warmer. Ice does not form earlier and melts faster in the spring.
Indigenous communities have been disproportionately evacuated by Canadian bushfires this summer, even in the far north where wildfires are never a problem. Their homes could be in more isolated and fire-prone areas, including the boreal forest, a vital natural resource that stores carbon, purifies air and water and regulates the climate.
Some evacuees have gathered children and pets at travel centres. Parents hold their children while they wait to go home, a possibility that may come soon as the weather improves in some areas. Others watched from tents at their free camp site as the Northern Lights shimmered over their makeshift shelter. Like the banyan tree in Hawaii, it was a source of beauty though it was lost.
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