Tested in Greece’s fires: An emergency force for 27 countries

Tested in Greece’s fires: An emergency force for 27 countries

DADIA – At dusk last week in the picturesque northern Greek village of Dadia, home to a few hundred people and next to a lush national park full of rare vultures, dozens of firefighters from around Europe gathered to assess the day’s work and load up on water and fuel.

Exhausted, with dark smudges across flushed cheeks, they watched Europe’s most destructive blaze in recent history advance through virgin forest across the hill.

There was little to do now but wait. In this spot, the impenetrably dense forest meant firefighters couldn’t confront the enemy on the ground. Two water-scooping aircraft had just completed their final drops for the day – they would have to head back to base and wait for first light to get back up.

The acrid air in the tidy village square was full of ash settling gently like snow. Locals prepared for another anxious sleepless night. They opened the cafe on the square, pulled up chairs and offered the firefighters drinks and snacks. Together, they waited for what the night held in store.

It was a preview of Europe’s future, where, increasingly, major natural disasters linked to the climate crisis, like Greece’s wildfires, will be handled with the help of standing forces funded by the European Union, ready to deploy where needed.

Right now, they’re overwhelmingly needed in Greece.

The fire around Dadia was still burning on Wednesday, for a 12th consecutive day. A record 198,000 acres have burned in the broader Evros region since the blazes began on August 19.

Greece is at the frontier of the continent’s climate crisis, which unleashed oppressive heat waves and deadly wildfires this summer at a pace and scale rarely seen before. Other nations along the Mediterranean coastline like Italy, Spain and France face similar challenges, while elsewhere on the continent, both freak heat and floods have been playing out.

The combination of heat waves, gale-force winds and flammable vegetation – mostly pine trees – mean that Greece’s forests are tinder boxes, overwhelming Greek firefighters who, critics say, lack the resources to deal with regular fire seasons, let alone the mega-fires raging this year.

In Evros, hundreds of firefighters and dozens of aircraft have been deployed to stop the blaze. It has not been enough.

To bolster the response, Greece turned to the EU for help. The bloc, through a special program, dispatched aircraft, fire trucks and more than a hundred firefighters to its member nation, drawing on a standing force sourced from Croatia, Germany, Romania, Sweden, the Czech Republic and Cyprus.

Last week, about one-fifth of the firefighters battling blazes in Greece were part of the EU force.

The bloc’s civil protection mechanism, as it is called, was set up more than two decades ago as a voluntary coordination program where EU nations could offer assistance to others in need, both within the union and outside it.

But since 2019, the bloc has added a new layer to its joint disaster-fighting muscle, known as rescEU. This one is fully paid for by the European Union and is not voluntary: If a member state requests assistance, the rescEU standing force must respond.

EU officials said that most of the aircraft used in Greece, for example, were commanded to deploy there under the EU program.

“With the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, there’s a growing risk that national capacities may not meet the needs,” said Janez Lenarcic, the European commissioner for crisis management.

The rescEU program “is a new, higher level of European solidarity, which we absolutely need if we are to cope with the worsening impact of climate change,” he added. “No country can hope to be able to do that on its own.”

The program is nascent. Its budget for this season is only 23 million euros, or $25 million, and it includes 28 specialized aircraft and 440 firefighters from 11 EU countries who were deployed preemptively in Greece, Portugal and France.

Wildfires are its main focus, but the program also responds to needs like building mobile shelters, providing emergency transportation and electricity supplies in crises, and dealing with medical emergencies and chemical, biological and nuclear incidents.

Villagers in Dadia were deeply grateful to the foreigners who were working hard to save their lives, livelihoods and natural environment, throwing themselves into the fray alongside Greek firefighters.

“The Romanians are machines!” exclaimed Dimos Gabranis, who was born and raised in Dadia and rushed back to the village from a nearby city last week to help as he could. “They really have no fear – we are lucky they’re here.” On social media, Greeks joked about finding houses and spouses for the European firefighters so they would never leave.

The EU’s joint force also points to the possibility of a darker future, where parts of Europe that are now cooler and wetter might become more prone to southern-style wildfires.

Florin Chirea, the leader of the Romanian firefighting team operating in Evros, is practically an expert on Greek wildfires, having deployed to the country as part of the EU program four times since 2021 – all to combat major summertime blazes.

“This help is good for the host nations, but it’s also good for us to improve,” he said. “Today we don’t have such big problems, but we really need to adapt, because this year we are in Greece, maybe in 10 years or 15 years the same thing could happen in Romania.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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