Wildfires are sweeping Europe and Britain as never before. What, or who, sparked them? Joe Shute and Bruno Manteigas investigate – and discover that the danger is far from over when the flames are doused
Joe Shute and Bruno Manteigas report on the wildfires scourging communities across Europe and the world – and ask what can be done to stop the devastation
They died huddled together; 26 men, women and children entwined in each other’s arms. The Greek villa where their bodies were recovered by a Red Cross rescue team was just yards from the Aegean Sea, but so fierce and fast were the wildfires sweeping through the pine forest and olive groves surrounding the resort town of Mati, they didn’t stand a chance. At least 91 were killed and hundreds injured in the wildfires that just over 10 days ago obliterated Mati, 18 miles east of Athens, in the country’s deadliest outbreak since 2007. Many of the residents and holidaymakers who survived did so by rushing into the sea, as flames destroyed an estimated 1,500 homes and hundreds of cars. Of the 26 dead in the villa, Nikos Economopoulos, the head of Greece’s Red Cross, said: ‘They had tried to find an escape route, but unfortunately these people and their kids didn’t make it. Instinctively, seeing the end nearing, they embraced.’
A similar tragedy played out in the mountainous area of Pedrógão Grande in central Portugal last June, where wildfires claimed 66 lives. In the village of Nodeirinho, Ana Sofia Bechor was among a dozen residents to take shelter in a 3m x 2m concrete water tank, as wildfires engulfed the village. The 39-yearold recalls being next to an elderly woman in the tank who was suffering severe burns; others shrieked in terror as gas canisters exploded and houses were destroyed all around them. The worst sound of all was the animals: goats, ducks and chickens bleating and calling as they were consumed by the inferno.
All night she waited for news of her husband, Sidnel, and four-year-old nephew, Rodrigo, who were attempting to return to the village through the wildfires. At around 2am, word reached those hiding in the tank that two cars had crashed nearby. Ana persuaded a neighbour to take her to the wreckage and discovered her own car trapped by a fallen tree. Sidnel and Rodrigo were lying together on the ground nearby. Like those who died in the villa in Greece, the 38-year-old held his nephew in a tight embrace. ‘I can only imagine their desperation trying to escape,’ she recalls, tears rolling down her cheeks.
The scorched Greek riviera and still-blackened hills of Pedrógão Grande stand testament to the intensifying threat of wildfire across the globe. Last year was Portugal’s worst ever year for wildfires – 121 lives lost and thousands of homes and hectares of land destroyed in two major outbreaks in June and October – and the most devastating across Europe as a whole, with swathes of Spain, France and Italy smouldering until as late as November. But 2018 is already proving another annus horribilis. Aside from the hellish scenes in Greece, the long drought that has enveloped much of the northern hemisphere has sparked huge blazes in areas typically far less susceptible to wildfire, from Siberia to Saddleworth Moor in England’s Peak District. Parts of Canada, California and Asia are also burning. In recent weeks, Sweden has appealed for international assistance with 11 separate wildfires taking hold as far north as the Arctic Circle. As our climate warms, infernos, once seen as an aberration, are becoming the new norm. The question is whether it is already too late to end the cycle.
On 19 July, the Saddleworth Moor wildfire – England’s largest in living memory – was declared extinguished, nearly a month after it started on a grouse moor. At its peak, seven square miles of moorland were ablaze and the Army was drafted in to assist hundreds of firefighters. Some 50 homes were evacuated around the moor including 34 in Carrbrook, Stalybridge, and four nearby schools were also temporarily closed as a precaution. While no casualties were reported, the old mill towns clustered at the bottom of the moor were shrouded in dense smoke so thick that residents were issued with surgical masks. With another fire raging on nearby Winter Hill in Bolton, the ash cloud reached as far as Manchester.
While Saddleworth smouldered, a converted BAE 146 aircraft, operated by the Natural Environment Research Council, flew over the moor. On board a team of atmospheric chemists were taking samples to record the pollutants in the air. The results are currently being studied by scientists at Manchester and Leeds universities and yet to be released, although many experts fear the toll of such a dense canopy of smoke billowing out over the urban fringes could be profound. A Harvard and Columbia study into the impact of wildfire smoke in Indonesia – a country particularly prone to it as a result of forest clearances for the palm oil industry – has suggested up to 100,000 premature deaths may eventually be caused by a smog outbreak caused by widespread wildfires in 2015.
Peatland ecosystems, which cover an estimated 11 per cent of England, including Saddleworth Moor, are feared to be a particular health threat, due to the vast amount of carbon they store and the manner in which they smoulder for weeks. According to Susan Page, professor of physical geography at the University of Leicester, this toxic smoke poses ‘significant health risks to human communities’, even hundreds of miles away from the source.
Research into peat fires in southeast Asia has discovered chemicals including hydrogen cyanide, benzene and ammonia released into the air. The upland bogs of the Peak District also hold two centuries of industrial pollution once produced by the surrounding mill towns and large manufacturing cities like Manchester and Sheffield. ‘My concern is whether the fires are now liberating some of those industrial pollutants back up in the atmosphere,’ Professor Page says. ‘I think wildfires are increasingly going to become a health issue.’
Professor Chris Evans, a senior researcher at the UK’S Centre of Ecology and Hydrology, agrees there will almost certainly be a detrimental impact on people’s health. He has suggested that if the peat burnt to a depth of 10cm across the reported affected 6,400 acres on Saddleworth Moor, it could have released about half a million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the air. Evans has worked in Northern Ireland studying the impact of wildfire on water quality and says it has been found to release toxins that take two decades to dissipate. ‘The environmental impacts are severe,’ he says. ‘Wildfire is a natural part of an ecosystem, but the change that has happened is human intervention in the landscape, making it more conducive to fires happening. Extreme hot, dry periods encourage the fire, but it is almost invariably people that start them.’
Among the emergency responders on Saddleworth Moor and Winter Hill was Craig Hope, the lead wildfire officer for South Wales Fire and Rescue Service. The 43-year-old is part of a group of 25 specialist advisors who provide tactical support when wildfires break out across the country. According to Hope, 96 per cent of wildfires in south Wales are started deliberately and he believes a similar figure is the case across Britain. A 22-year-old man has been arrested on suspicion of arson over the Saddleworth blaze and released under investigation. Arson is also suspected in the latest Greek fires. ‘We don’t know why people do it,’ Hope says. ‘We’ve tried to analyse the mindset [of arsonists] but we just don’t know. Personally, I think it is all kinds of people of different ages and from all walks of life.’ Some start fires out of carelessness, discarding cigarettes or barbecues on the moor. Others do so deliberately
‘They tried to find an escape route but didn’t make it. Instinctively, seeing the end, they embraced’
to clear land, which in a tinderbox environment, can quickly spill out of control. And then there are the pyromaniacs, drawn by an obsessive impulse to set fires. Even as firefighters struggled to contain the Winter Hill blaze near Bolton last month, a police helicopter surveying the area spotted arsonists attempting to light other areas of grassland nearby.
Hope and his team have focused on prevention across south Wales, increasing patrols, talking to landowners, visiting schools and burning strips of land to create firebreaks. In one way it has been a success – the number of wildfires recorded has reduced from 4,000 in 2009 to 1,800 in 2015. And yet the overall land mass affected continues to rise due to increasing vegetation. ‘The more you work to stop the fires, the harder they become to fight,’ Hope says. ‘They burn for longer and affect communities more… It is only really a matter of time before we lose property or life.’
Climate change is the obvious culprit. Global temperatures have risen nearly 1C above pre-industrial levels, with two thirds of the warming occurring since 1975. The summer of 2018 could yet prove the hottest and driest in Britain since records began. Yet our warming climate is, in fact, regarded as an amplifying factor rather than direct cause. It is people who provide the spark, both literally and in the wider sense, by changing the way in which we use the land.
Britain’s uplands are in an ecological crisis that has stripped away their natural resistance to fire. Saddleworth Moor is a case in point: much of its peat-forming sphagnum moss has disappeared over the past century or so, and wetlands have been drained, creating a monoculture of highly flammable heather – although in recent years there have been efforts to restore blanket bog habitats on parts of the moor. Elsewhere, farming practices have intensified and soil has been eroded, further increasing the susceptibility to wildfire. According to Hope, the situation has worsened in south Wales, where shepherds increasingly prefer to keep livestock in enclosed fields rather than roaming the hills, keeping vegetation in check. As the world’s population urbanises, these same patterns are occurring all over the globe.
In Portugal the eucalyptus is known locally as the ‘tree of fire’ and grows as far as the eye can see. It was also central to the tragedy that unfolded in the country’s wildfires last summer. Portugal is one of the most heavily forested countries in Europe, but also has the lowest amount of state-owned woodland – just two per cent. A complex system of inheritance, where land is divided up among relatives, has led to an impenetrable patchwork of ownership across the country, with 85 per cent of plots smaller than three hectares (the size of a couple of football pitches). In previous generations this land was lovingly tended by smallholders, using it for grazing and growing crops, but as Portugal’s population has moved to cities, many areas have been abandoned. For elderly family members left behind on the land, the easiest cash crop to grow has become eucalyptus, which feeds Portugal’s $2.6 billion paper and pulp industry. Aside from the mammoth industrial plantations, local farmers are offered money to plant eucalyptus trees on their land. The result has been a non-native tree, which originated in Australia, now covering an estimated 25 per cent of Portuguese woodland. The high oil content and deep roots of the slender eucalyptus mean it can spread fire at an incredible intensity.
The N236-1 in Pedrógão Grande is one of a number of roads in the country to wind through eucalyptus forest. A busy highway and the main route in and out of Nodeirinho, it has been renamed ‘The Road of Death’ after last year’s fires. On 17 June 2017, 47 people died here trapped in their cars as eucalyptus trees burnt through the valley, down to the very edge of the road, producing a heat so intense it melted the asphalt.
Nodeirinho resident João Viola was one of the few to survive. The 61-year-old gardener had spent the afternoon at a nearby village, hosting a traditional sardine lunch for some of the English expat community who live in the area. When he noticed a plume of smoke in the late afternoon, he attempted to drive back to Nodeirinho. As he reached the N236-1 he passed abandoned cars. ‘Both sides of the road were on fire,’ he says. ‘It was like a rain of flames.’ With visibility down to zero, he eventually managed to turn around and drive back to safety. ‘There were many cars still going past me into the fire,’ he recalls.
After spending a night with his wife Dina in a nearby evacuation centre, João finally made it into Nodeirinho at 7am the next day via a different route. Sitting in the kitchen of his house, which miraculously survived (next door burnt down), he remembers the first body he discovered among the ruins of the charred village where he has lived all his life. It was his cousin,
‘The worst thing for me was the silence. No birds, no voices, no wind, just tears’
Afonso Conceição, lying on the side of the road asphyxiated by the smoke. Of the 11 Nodeirinho residents who died that day, four were relatives of his. ‘The worst thing for me was the silence,’ João recalls, who has been forced to seek counselling as a result of the trauma. ‘No birds, no voices, no wind through the trees, just tears. Everything was black. It was like a bomb had gone off.’
Over the past year he has helped erect a memorial to the Nodeirinho victims. It stands opposite the water tank where survivors huddled together, and its foundations are filled with the rubble of their homes and scorched pieces of the cars they died in. Inscribed on the stone is a passage from The Book of Revelation, ‘Behold, I make all things new,’ and the names of the dead. The youngest casualty was three-year-old Bianca Henrique Nunes. João says her death and that of four-year-old Rodrigo meant the village was left with no children. Over the ensuing days, when rescuers reached the village and donations began to flood in, there was nobody left to give the toys to.
Many of those who lost their homes in Portugal last year remain without a roof over their heads. Daniel Starling, a 56-year-old British expat and website engineer, who three years ago moved to the village of Figueira, neighbouring Nodeirinho, managed to escape just before the fire reached his house. With visibility reduced to nil, he drove up through the flames past the N236 on to the IC8 motorway, stopping en route to rescue four villagers standing by the side of the road, stunned and blackened by smoke. He lost everything, aside from his passport, papers and an old laptop, and continues to stay with friends while his house is slowly rebuilt with charity funds established to support victims. ‘I think about it often. The past year has been one of turmoil, but at least I’m still here,’ he says.
Across the valley another British expat, 51-year-old Adam Henderson, who has lived in Portugal since 1988, is still waiting to discover from the authorities when the family home he constructed will be rebuilt after it burnt down in the October wildfire. ‘There have always been fires around but never that big and they were always put out,’ he says. ‘Somehow we believed it would never happen to us.’ For the past year, Adam and his Austrian wife, Ute, have been forced to rebuild a disused stone property on their land at their own expense as temporary accommodation, a few metres from the rubble of their former 137sq m two-storey home. He estimates they have lost around €250,000 of property and possessions. ‘To lose the personal things is terrible,’ Ute says. ‘My school guitar, clothes, films of our children are all gone. Then it is the constant decisions about what to do next. It has been really hard.’ Neither property was insured, although those affected have been assured by the government they will eventually have their homes rebuilt.
According to Alexander Held, senior expert at the European Forest Institute, the pattern we have witnessed across the globe in recent years is only going to intensify. ‘This summer is surely another sign of what we can expect more of in the future,’ he says. Held says that the Europe wildfire season now begins in April, while a few decades ago it started in June, a pattern climate change will continue to exacerbate. The only lasting solution, he insists, is better management of wilderness areas and restoring more diverse patterns of agriculture and forestry. In short: mending our broken relationship with the land.
Such efforts are already underway in Portugal and it is hoped these may be replicated elsewhere in Europe. In the village of Ferraria de São João, a few miles from Nodeirinho, the population of 40 residents has implemented an ‘Environmental Protection Zone’ in a 100m radius, replacing eucalyptus with native species far more resistant to wildfires, like oak, cork oak, walnut and cherry. They have been assisted in their efforts by some 500 volunteers, including many from abroad.
In the Mafra region, just north of Lisbon, the local Proteção Civil has begun to introduce ‘prescribed burning’ on private land it deems to be of particular threat. Since 2006, explains Carlos Trindade, Mafra’s civil protection coordinator, the authorities have deliberately burnt around 200 hectares of land. As a result the number of fires has dramatically decreased from a yearly average of 368 between 2001 and 2005 to 115 between 2011 and 2016. Not a single life has been lost to wildfire in Mafra since the scheme began.
As we climb a steep hill where a prescribed burning has recently taken place, Trindade points out the germination of native oak trees where eucalyptus once stood, and the tracks of rabbits that increasingly populate the area. Swifts swirl about our heads and, he says, local populations of the Bonelli’s eagle are also beginning to increase as the ecosystem recovers. In the distance, though, on land where his team have not been able to work, thickets of planted pine and eucalyptus still wave in the breeze. Like last year in his home country and this year in Greece, Trindade knows all too well how quickly such a bucolic scene can erupt. ‘You see nature,’ he says. ‘I see fuel.’
Britain Parts of Saddleworth Moor in Lancashire burnt for three weeks in June and July
Portugal Firefighters battling wildfires in Cabanoes, near Louzan, in October 2017
Greece Burnt-out cars line the roads after wildfires hit the seaside resort of Mati