EVIA, Greece – Amid twisted cages and scorched trees, Harilaos Tertipis stepped out of his ruined stables and dragged with him the charred corpses of his sheep—burnt, like so many others, in the wildfires that have swept Greece.
As the survivors of his herd sat together on a hill below by the road, bells rang around their necks and their paws scorched, he said that if he had stayed with his animals instead of running home to his family and home to protect, “I would” am not here now.”
On Wednesday, fires around the northern parts of Evia, Greece’s second largest island, had destroyed more than 120,000 hectares of pine forest, destroyed homes and displaced hundreds of people. They have brought aid from more than 20 countries and have been declared “a natural disaster of unprecedented magnitude” by the Greek Prime Minister.
The fires, fueled by a record-breaking heat wave that reached temperatures as high as 46 degrees Celsius or 115 degrees Fahrenheit, have sparked political blame, economic disaster and biblical scenes of destruction.
But they seem less like an arbitrary act of God than another inevitable episode of Europe’s extreme weather brought on by man-made climate change that scientists have now concluded is irreversible.
Europe has always considered itself a climate leader, and last month pledged to cut emissions by 55 percent over the next decade, calling this “a make-or-break moment” for the planet “before we reach irreversible tipping points”.
But a string of disasters this summer has left many wondering if that tipping point is already here, bringing home the realization that climate change is no longer a distant threat to future generations, but an immediate scourge affecting both rich and poor countries.
Aside from the fires that have raged in the American West, or in Turkey and Algeria, virtually no corner of Europe has been untouched by a bewildering array of disasters, be it fire, flood or heat.
Scorching temperatures have sparked wildfires in Sweden, Finland and Norway. Floods in Germany, Belgium, Switzerland and the Netherlands, which previously occurred once every thousand years, have killed at least 196 people. Places in Italy hit more than 118 degrees this week, as parts of the country were alternately scorched by fire, ravaged by hailstorms or engulfed by floods.
“It’s not just Greece,” said Vasilis Vathrakoyiannis, a spokesman for the Greek fire service. “It’s the whole European ecosystem.”
But the shifting epicenter of natural disasters has now fallen on Evia, a densely forested island northeast of Athens, once best known for its beekeepers and resin producers, its olive groves and seaside resorts, and now a capital of the effects of a warming planet.
This week, as firefighters rushed to extinguish flare-ups and helicopters dropped seawater to appease licking flames, acres of burned hills and fields were covered in white ash, as if covered in snow.
I drove through winding roads full of fallen trees and electrical wires. The smoke hung low, like a thick fog. The trunks of mutilated trees are still smoldering and the beekeepers’ hives looked like burnt side tables left in empty fields. Miles away from the fires, the smoke still left a pungent taste in my mouth. Ash wandered through cafes where waitresses constantly watered the tables and the sun drenched the dense haze with a sickly orange hue.
“We lived in paradise,” said Babis Apostolou, 59, with tears in his eyes as he looked out over the charred land surrounding his village, Vasilika, on the northern tip of Evia. “Now it’s hell.”
This week, the fires broke new ground. In the southern Peloponnese, where more than 60 people died in wildfires in 2007, a long stretch of forest and houses tore through forest and more than 20 villages were evacuated. But many Greeks have refused to leave their homes.
When police ordered 59-year-old Argyro Kypraiou in the village of Kyrinthos in Evia to evacuate on Saturday, she stayed. As the trees across the street blazed, she fought the barrage of burning pinecones and flames with a garden hose. When the water ran out, she beat the fire back with branches.
“If we had left, the houses would have burned down,” she said, facing the still smoldering ravine. A truck drove by and the driver leaned out the window and yelled at her that there was another fire in the field behind her house. “We’ll keep putting out fires,” she yelled back. “We have no other job.”
Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis called recent days “one of the most difficult for our country in decades” and pledged to compensate those affected and reforest the country. Residents on the other side of scorched north Evia complained that the government had failed to fly water-dripping planes to them fast enough or that it had waited too long to ask the European Union for help.
Greece’s top prosecutor has ordered an investigation into whether criminal activity may have caused the fires, perhaps to clear land for development. Many here blamed mysterious arsonists for lighting the fire.
“This is arson,” said Mr Apostolo. “I had heard they wanted to put wind turbines in.”
Mr Tertipis said: “I hope the person who started these fires will suffer as much as my animals.”
But it was also possible that the finger-pointing at arsonists stemmed from a sense of powerlessness and the need to blame anyone – anyone – for a crisis that some acknowledged was everyone’s fault.
“We all need to make changes,” said Irini Anastasiou, 28, who expected the fires to continue around the world as the planet warmed. She looked out from the reception of her now empty hotel in Pefki, one of the worst-hit towns, and saw an opaque wall of mist over the sea.
“Usually you can clearly see the other side of the mountains,” she said. “Now you can’t see anything.”
The inhabitants of Evia did what they could. In the town of Prokopi, volunteer firefighters established their base in the Forest Museum (“focused on man and his relationship to the forest”).
Hundreds of boxes full of supplies for the displaced made a messy log cabin. They were packed with crackers and cereal and granola bars. Soft piles of diapers for children and adults reached up to the windows. Boxes contained medicines and burn creams, aloe vera, Flamigel, hydrogel and Flogo Instant Calm Spray, under a sign promoting TWIG, the Transnational Woodland Industries Group.
An international group of aid workers operated from the cabin. Some of the 108 firefighters sent by Romania coordinated with Greek army officials and local authorities to extinguish the flames. Some of the volunteers set out with chainsaws to cut down trees, while those who returned leaned against a wall of bottled water and pondered what had gone wrong.
Ioannis Kanellopoulos, 62, accused heavy snowfall in the winter of breaking so many branches and creating so much kindling on the forest floor. But the intense heat didn’t help.
“When the fire broke out, it was 113 degrees in the shade,” he said.
He said the previous measure of destruction in the area was a 1977 fire. This fire had eclipsed it far, he said, and guaranteed it would not be surpassed for years to come.
“There’s nothing left to burn,” he said.
“It’s not California,” added his friend Spiros Michail, 52.
That there was nothing left to burn was the common refrain of the island. The punch line to the terrible joke nature had played with them.
But it wasn’t true. There was much more to burn.
At night the fires returned, appearing like Chinese lanterns on the dark hills in the distance. The fires burned like ghostly campsites along the roads.
Stylianos Totos, a ranger, stood erect as he looked through binoculars at a hill near Ellinika.
“How do we access that?” he shouted to his colleague in a truck with more than a ton of water. He feared that the wind would change from east to west and feed the fire with fresh pines. Just before 9:00 p.m. Tuesday, one of the small flames flared up, illuminating all the barren land and twisting branches around it. “Andrea,” he shouted. “Call it in.”
But any help, and any change in global behavior, had come too late for Mr. Tertipis and his flock.
Mr Tertipis, 60, who lost his mother and suffered permanent scars on his left arm in the 1977 fire, rushed from home to his stables before dawn on Sunday. The fire had consumed half his flock, but left untouched a plush green pine tree and a green field just a few dozen yards away.
“That’s right, in five minutes you live or die,” he said, adding, “the fire just changes all the time.”
For two days he couldn’t answer the phone or do much but cry. Then he began to clean up, wading through the remains in galoshes, dragging load after load, using a sled he made from a hook and a broken refrigerator door.
He’d been raising animals all his life, and he said he had no choice but to keep going, no matter how inhospitable the weather around him had become.
“Maybe something has changed,” he said with a shrug. “What are you going to do? Just give up?”
Niki Kitsantonis contributed report from Evia.