What is ‘fire weather’? Parts of Greece, Italy and Turkey face ‘extreme’ risk in coming days, experts warn

More popular tourist destinations are at risk as wildfires rage through parts of southern Europe.

25 July 2023, Greece, -: Volunteers fight the many fires with the simplest of means, garden hoses and fire extinguishers are used. In Greece, forest fires are raging in numerous regions. Popular vacation resorts such as the islands of Rhodes and Corfu are also affected. Photo: Christoph Reichwein/dpa (Photo by Christoph Reichwein/picture alliance via Getty Images)
Volunteers in Greece fight fires with the simplest of means - garden hoses and fire extinguishers. (Getty Images)

Popular tourist destinations including Crete, Sicily and Sardinia are at risk of 'extreme fire weather" in the coming days, experts have warned.

It comes as thousands of people flee the Greek islands of Corfu, Evia and Rhodes, with Greece's prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis declaring the country is "at war" with wildfires.

In Sicily, Palermo Airport was forced to close in the early hours of Tuesday morning as flames spread dangerously close to its perimeter, with temperatures on the Italian island soaring to 47C.

Wildfires, which began in Rhodes on Tuesday, 18 July, have been particularly dire, with many exhausted tourists forced to sleep at the airport after frantic evacuations. About 10% of the island's land area has now burned.

Read more: Greece 'at war' with raging wildfires on Rhodes, Corfu islands: The latest as thousands evacuate

Initially they were confined to the hilly terrain further inland, until Saturday, when strong northerly winds drove the fire to the more populated coasts at a fast pace, says Dr Thomas Smith, associate professor in environmental geography at the London School of Economics.

Watch: Fire Fighters Battle to Control Wildfires in Turkey

"Aside from Rhodes, parts of southwestern Turkey, Crete, Sicily, and Sardinia all have similar extreme fire weather outlooks for the coming days," he added.

What is 'fire weather'?

Fire conductive weather is a metric combining temperature, relative humidity, rainfall and winds, Dr Smith explains.

All of these factors combined help determine how easily and quickly fire can grow and smoke disperse, according to the US National Weather Service.

“Extreme fire weather means faster moving fires with more intensity - bigger flames," adds Dr Smith. "This increases risk because they become more difficult to fight and there is usually less time for evacuation.

A map released by the Greek Ministry of Civil Protection shows which areas are at the most risk. (Twitter/@GSCP_GR)

"It’s a testament to the Greek authorities that the evacuation was swift and effective. Greece has been devastated by much more severe fire events in recent years, and they were clearly very well prepared for this fire."

Guillermo Rein, a professor of fire science at Imperial College London describes the combination of heat, wing and people in the Mediterranean as "mortal".

Read more: Italy wildfires force airport to close as temperatures soar to 47C

“The intense heat of the summer dries vegetation and makes it very flammable, easier to catch fire. A heat wave or an unusually hot summer leads to even more flammable forests," he adds.

Professor Rein says strong winds "greatly accelerate" this spread, warning of "walls of flames that cannot be stopped by ground crews or slowed down by airtankers".

Read more: EasyJet pilot warns passengers on flight to Rhodes to get off plane moments before take-off

An aircraft drops water as firefighters operate during a wildfire in Vati village, on the Aegean Sea island of Rhodes, southeastern Greece, on Tuesday, July 25, 2023. A third successive heat wave in Greece pushed temperatures back above 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) across parts of the country Tuesday following more nighttime evacuations from fires that have raged out of control for days. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)
An aircraft drops water as firefighters operate during a wildfire in Vati village, Rhodes. (AP)

“Large wildfires might jump over firebreaks because of the intense heat they radiate over dozens of meters, and the flying embers that can carry flames kilometres away," he adds.

“When all goes wrong, when dry vegetation is plentiful, there is wind and previous forest management was poor, then the fire brigades cannot do much."

What's causing these wildfires?

It is not clear exactly what is causing all of the fires raging through southern Europe, although officials in Corfu have suggested the island's wildfires were started by arsonists.

As Professor Rein points out, forest fires are no new phenomenon in the region - but he warns that climate change is "making them larger, faster, and harder to stop" .

He says the Mediterranean is in the midst of its second major heatwave this year, the first of which was found to have been made "100-times more likely" and "at least 2C hotter" due to the impact of climate change.

Watch: Thousands of tourists forced to evacuate as wildfires ravage Greek islands

Dr Douglas Kelley, a land surface modeller at the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, said that while it's "too early to say" exactly what has caused the wildfires we're seeing in Greece and Italy, climate change is almost certainly a piece of the puzzle.

"The fact there are now so many across the world, most recently in Greece and Canada, is a clear sign that climate change is causing an increase in the number of severe wildfires globally," he says.

He says global warming creates conditions for more intense heatwaves, which dry out vegetation and dead plant material - thus creating tinderbox conditions, particularly with recent high winds.

“While not uncommon in southern Europe, what was unusual about the fires in Rhodes was the intensity and the speed at which they spread."

Read more: UK weather: ‘No sign’ rain will end soon as jet stream keeps Britain in a ‘rut’

Sicily, Italy. 18th July, 2023. MONTE BONIFATO CONTINUES TO BURNING IN ALCAMO THE SCIROCCO WIND FEEDS THE FLAMES IN SMOKE HECTARES OF FOREST In the photo the wood of Monte Bonifato has been burning in smoke for two days hectares of wood, the fire service of the Alcamo forestry has no means to be able to operate, forestry canadairs and helicopters operated throughout the day Credit: Independent Photo Agency Srl/Alamy Live News
The woodlands of Monte Bonifato in Sicily has already been burning for two days. (Alamy)

If humanity carries on in the same trajectory, Dr Kelley predicts a global increase in extreme fires "of up to 50% by the end of the century".

He adds: “There is a feedback loop where fires in ecosystems that store large amounts of carbon, such as forests, result in the release of vast quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This exacerbates global warming, which in turn increases the risk of wildfires.

"Even if we reduce greenhouse gas emissions, there are likely to be more wildfire events by 2100 because global temperatures are continuing to rise and are expected to reach 1.5 to 2C higher than pre-industrial times. This means that communities in some regions will need to adapt to increases in burning.’’

Read more: Rhodes fires: Dad rescues car loads of stranded tourists on blazing Greek island

This photo obtained from Italian news agency Ansa shows a vast fire spreading on hills in the area of Monte Grifone and the town of Ciaculli around Palermo, Sicily, on July 25, 2023, with flames threatening nearby houses. Sicilian firefighters were fighting overnight against several fires, one of which neared Palermo airport, forcing it to close for several hours in the morning. (Photo by STRINGER / ANSA / AFP) / Italy OUT (Photo by STRINGER/ANSA/AFP via Getty Images)
Fire spreads on the hills close to the town of Ciaculli, around Palermo, Sicily. (Getty Images)

A study published by World Weather Attribution - a global team of scientists - said extreme weather events across the world this month would be "extremely rare" without human-induced climate change.

"European and North American temperatures would have been virtually impossible without the effects of climate change," said Izidine Pinto of the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute, one of the study's authors.

"In China it was around 50 times more likely to happen compared to the past."

'There is no magical defence mechanism'

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis warned of difficult days ahead as ministers met to discuss a response to wildfires that forced 20,000 people to leave homes and hotels in Rhodes over the weekend.

"I will state the obvious: in the face of what the entire planet is facing, especially the Mediterranean, which is a climate change hotspot, there is no magical defence mechanism, if there was we would have implemented it," he told reporters.

About 20,000 people had to leave homes and hotels in Rhodes over the weekend as the inferno spread and reached coastal resorts on the verdant island's southeast, after charring land, killing animals and damaging buildings, although no people have been killed by the blazes yet.

Read more: Rhodes and Corfu are safe for tourists, Greek minister insists as thousands evacuated

A volunteer gives directions during a wildfire in Vati village, on the Aegean Sea island of Rhodes, southeastern Greece, on Tuesday, July 25, 2023. A third successive heat wave in Greece pushed temperatures back above 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) across parts of the country Tuesday following more nighttime evacuations from fires that have raged out of control for days. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)
A volunteer gives directions during a wildfire in Vati village, Rhodes. (AP)

After a blaze in the seaside town of Mati, east of Athens, in 2018 killed 104 people, Greece has taken a more proactive approach towards evacuations.

But critics say it has not improved its ability to put out fires that are common in summer, though more intense in this year's heatwave.

Hundreds of firefighters, helped by forces from Turkey and Slovakia, battled blazes close to the villages of Gennadi and Vati in the southeast of Rhodes as the wildfires resurged in hot, windy conditions.

Rhodes mayor said on Facebook the island was facing an unprecedented ordeal, writing: "A week of back-to-back battles in an asymmetric war with an unprecedented scope and intensity of fire."