We’re in this new ‘normal’ together

We’re in this new ‘normal’ together

As governments and citizens alike grapple with the aftermath of the wildfires in the greater Athens area and across Greece, there are some simple fixes landowners might make to help mitigate potential property damage from future wildfires. 

In this space, following the deadly wildfires of 2018 in Mati and Kineta, I wrote a column highlighting some learnings that could be applied from a Canadian perspective. I drafted that column fresh off the experience serving as lead writer on a wildfire- and flood-related report delivered to the Government of British Columbia, Canada’s westernmost province. 

This year’s wildfires, in the Tatoi area and Vilia, hit particularly close to home, with family property in not one but both affected areas. 

Today, people are criticizing the Mitsotakis government for not spearheading an appropriate response or reacting quickly enough. Though that may or may not be true depending on one’s perspective and political persuasion, one fact is certain: Everyone has a role to play in fighting wildfires. 

What does this mean? For citizens, it means taking proactive steps to ensure their properties are free of dead trees and dry wood, leaves and pine needles – “fuel,” as it is also known – that can quickly accelerate a wildfire. This is something we highlighted in the Canadian report titled “Addressing the New Normal: 21st Century Disaster Management in British Columbia”:

“Some of the best measures for future-proofing our homes, our properties and our province do not necessarily come with a high price tag. Finding ways to share best practices, including some of those we have highlighted in this report – and finding opportunities to share those best practices with one another – is crucial. In the case of individual property owners… the simple act of picking up a rake and clearing dead leaves, branches and other small fuels from the yard could help limit the severity and intensity of wildfire.”

The reality is that a clean yard may mean the difference between whether a home, neighborhood or community is destroyed or not. With the recent wildfires northeast of Athens and on Evia, this proved all too true. One landowner featured prominently on television managed to save his home and, in turn, his community, by practicing this simple prescription.

A recent visit to the island of Agistri, heavily populated with pine trees, suggested just how vulnerable the forest and nearby properties are there – rooftops covered with dry pine needles. Considering the healthy contingent of campers on the island at any given time in the summer, and that smoking is still popular in Greece, all it would take is one cigarette, improperly extinguished, for disaster to happen. Agistri could be any Greek island. The same holds true country-wide.

Whether wildfires are caused by natural phenomena or, in some cases, instigated by arson, one thing is clear: Regardless of how well-prepared governments or homeowners are, wildfires can and will quickly get out of control with devastating impact. 

For their part, national, regional and municipal governments all have a responsibility to urge landowners to keep their properties clear. Among the suite of measures being implemented to lessen and limit the impact of future wildfires, mechanisms such as homeowner grants and rebates, popular with governments at all levels in Canada, might help incentivize property owners to make such change. This could include, for example, re-landscaping in favor of materials less likely to catch or spread fire, such as stones and cacti. 

While governments may or may not be able to do more, it is simplistic to blame any one government in its entirety. Instead, we must remember that governments and citizens are in this “new normal” together.

Andrew Tzembelicos is a Greek-Canadian writer, editor and communications consultant currently based in Athens.

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