28 July 2023

Pope urges governments to protect ‘our common home’ after European wildfires

28 July 2023

Pope Francis has urged governments to do more to fight climate change and protect “our common home” as improving weather conditions helped firefighters contain wildfires in Greece, Italy and other countries in southern Europe.

Francis, who has been outspoken on environmental issues, sent a telegram of condolences to Greece, where wildfires killed five people over the past week, including the pilots of a water-dropping aircraft.

The pope noted that successive heatwaves have exacerbated the dangers of the summer fire season. He offered his prayers for firefighters and emergency personnel in particular.

“(I hope) that the risks to our common home, exacerbated by the present climate crisis, will spur all people to renew their efforts to care for the gift of creation, for the sake of future generations,” Francis said.

Fuelled by the heatwaves and strong gusts of wind, wildfires in Europe’s Mediterranean region have kept travellers and residents on alert. In Greece, fires scorched hundreds of square miles of land outside Athens, on the island of Rhodes and elsewhere this month.

In central Greece, authorities maintained an exclusion zone around one of the country’s largest air force bases after a wildfire triggered powerful explosions at a nearby ammunition depot on Thursday. Fighter jets stationed at the 111th Combat Wing base were moved to other facilities.

The depot blasts near the central city of Volos shattered windows in nearby towns and prompted an evacuation of more than 2,000 people. Local news broadcasts showed a ground-shaking fireball emerging from a mountainous area.

Residents were rushed on to private boats mobilised by the coast guard and taken to a conference centre in Volos, 12 miles from the weapons storage site. A civilian traffic ban and evacuation order remained in effect on Friday within a two-mile radius of the depot.

A drop in temperatures and calmer winds helped firefighters get a handle on the blazes in Greece and all major fires were contained by midday Friday, Greek Fire Service officials said.

Conditions also improved elsewhere in Europe’s Mediterranean regions thanks to cooler temperatures, allowing firefighters to contain wildfires along the Croatian coast and in Sicily.

Firefighting teams in Turkey also brought a wildfire burning close to the southern Mediterranean resort of Kemer under control, four days after it erupted, Ibrahim Yumakli, the country’s forestry minister, said.

The governments of the countries hit by heatwaves and fires have steered public debate away from the potential impact on tourism.

Rhodes, where a fire last weekend required about 19,000 people to be evacuated from several locations on the island, was promised state support on Friday for its international advertising campaign.

The climate crisis that brought us this unprecedented heatwave is here. It’s not a theory. It is our actual experience

In Germany, Health Minister Karl Lauterbach sought to address Italian irritation over a mid-July social media post in which he described the heatwave he encountered on a visit to Italy as “spectacular” and added that “if it goes on like this, these vacation destinations will have no future in the long term”.

Mr Lauterbach told reporters in Berlin that he was not warning against vacations in southern Europe and plans to visit Italy again himself.

“Of course, it is more difficult now for the southern countries to organise heat protection in such a way that it is also accessible for every tourist, but I think those countries will know exactly what they have to do,” he said.

Vassilis Kikilias, the Greek minister for climate change and civil protection, said fires had burned 155 square miles of land in the country in July alone, while the recent average is nearly 200 square miles in a year.

“Is the situation any better in other countries bordering the Mediterranean? It’s a fair question … but the answer is no,” Mr Kikilias said.

“The climate crisis that brought us this unprecedented heatwave is here. It’s not a theory. It is our actual experience,” he said. “This is not something that will just occur this year. It will last and we have to face the consequences of what that means.”

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