The reality of wildfire is a daunting feeling to experience. When I was in southern Spain last year, the worry I felt as we sat watching the fire creep closer to us each minute was unimaginable. When the knock on the door arrived and the police ordered an evacuation, I realised just how scary it is. This is the reality facing many people across the Mediterranean. For farmers, not only are they losing their homes, they are also losing their entire livelihoods to the flames.
While temperatures across Europe soar this summer, the agricultural industry is suffering. Wildfires are ploughing through Greece at unmanageable rates; 55,000 hectares of Greek land have burnt this summer, nearing the damage of the infamous 2007 wildfires that ripped through the Peloponnese. According to NASA experts, it is inevitable that climate change will worsen and so will the wildfires across the world. Now more than ever, adaption and solutions are urgently needed to lower the impacts of wildfires on the local communities of Greece.
On the land
“When we look at the long-term environmental record, there’s a lot of evidence to show the Mediterranean is a disturbance-adapted environment and fire is part of that and has been persistent in the Mediterranean for thousands of years,” says Dr Jessie Woodbridge, a lecturer in ecosystem resilience at Plymouth University.
On average, olive trees take three to five years to grow to a point where they produce harvestable crops. The average life span of an olive tree is 170 years, but many continue to flourish for hundreds of years. With wildfires across the Mediterranean on the rise, the likelihood of losing these generational groves is becoming a devastating reality.
You might think a wildfire on a farm would mean losing only one year of hard work and harvest, but that’s not the case. Take into consideration the three years it takes to grow an olive tree, plus the fact that, post-wildfire, soil takes around seven years to regenerate to a state in which crops can be planted. In reality, for an olive farmer to have a successful harvest post-wildfire, they would be waiting on average ten years.
The impact of fires
Earlier this year, I, along with other students from the University of Plymouth conducted a research trip to Greece, focusing on land use management and wildfire in the Peloponnese. The nearby village was once home to 100 residents but since the fires in recent years, there are less than 25 residents left, as many have migrated to safer areas.
According to the IPCC , protection against extreme weather events and wildfires can come down to improved land use and soil management – and although there are some regenerative farming pioneers, this isn’t necessarily happening on the ground.
“There seems to be a change in what is growing. I always remember in Greece, you would see orange trees everywhere, and now there isn’t,” says Dr Woodbridge, who was surprised to see that new terraces were being established in an area with remains of recent wildfires, an area that is likely to burn soon due to a history of fire vulnerability in the area. “It was quite illustrative that the locals were not necessarily prepared for what might happen in the future.”
As part of our trip, we took to the streets of Sparta and asked locals their views on the farming industry and wildfires near them. A clothes shop owner in the city said: “In 2007, wildfires burnt thousands of acres. Mostly wildlife and forestry were burnt in the fires. It takes a long time to regenerate and cultivate burnt land.” A local farmer spoke of changing the crops he cultivates as the soil moisture was too low to continue with fruit trees.
For those in rural areas who depend on farming, these fires are placing their businesses in jeopardy, leading to the abandonment of agricultural land and desertification of communities in rural areas. In Greece, harvests from olive groves, vine crops and orchards are at highest risk of perishing. Arable farmers are affected too and this year’s wildfires have seen farmers releasing their livestock from farms to run from the fires, risking their lives and the livelihoods of the farmers.
Yannos Hadjiioannou, of supplier and distributor of premium Greek produce Maltby and Greek, says both cost and flavour of food from Greece will be affected by changes caused by climate change. “On a recent trip to one of the Greek islands, the elderly mother of one of our cheesemakers commented on how changes to the environment are impacting the feeding habits of sheep and goats, resulting in changes to the flavour of their milk,” he says.
“What’s been a bad year will be amplified by the result of the wildfires. In terms of costs, Brexit-related processing costs along with potentially higher prices from producers, might put further price pressure to the UK and British consumers.”
Fire breaks are currently used across the Mediterranean as a management measure but what we need is more prevention. Throughout history, controlled burning has been used as a practice to reduce fire risk and it is one of several possibilities that could help communities begin to coexist with wildfires, according to a recent paper in the Nature journal.
It’s clear that without finding a new way forward, the economic and social impact on Greece will be enormous. A recent study showed that the agricultural sector in Greece has one of the most profound wildfire related economic losses of all government sectors. Meanwhile, Greek farmers are having to drastically adapt, planting earlier in the year to collect successful harvests, if they can harvest at all.
As crops are burning, farming livelihoods suffer and the impacts of climate change continue to grow. Is it time to question what we can learn from the past, because it may teach us a lot for the future?