The first thing you notice is the smell. After a controlled fire – hearth, camp, pyre – the air smells dry, because firewood is dry. But wildfires burn living flora. Walking over land razed by wildfires you breathe resinous air, the fumes of combusted sap. During this summer’s record-breaking heatwave around the Mediterranean, wildfires broke out in Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Kabylia, Provence, Turkey, Sicily and across southern Italy. In August I went to Sardinia, where the fires had burned thousands of hectares of land and displaced hundreds of people. According to Sardinian apiculturists, millions of bees were killed.
As you approach Greece from the air, smog covers the land like a curtain – a thick grey line separating the deep blue Mediterranean sky from the Pindos mountains that run the length of the country north to south. There isn’t a major fire along the aircraft route, but with more than five hundred active wildfires across the country, the smoke is everywhere. Greece is facing its worst heatwave in four decades. With every passing year, the country sees more extremely hot days in the summer months. Wildfires are a feature of its ecosystem at the best of times. Now the threat is existential.
Mike Davis on California burning (LRB, 15 November 2007): The loss of more than 90 per cent of Southern California’s agricultural buffer zone is the principal if seldom mentioned reason wildfires increasingly incinerate such spectacular swathes of luxury real estate. It’s true that other ingredients – La Niña droughts, fire suppression (which sponsors the accumulation of fuel), bark beetle infestations and probably global warming – contribute to the annual infernos that have become as predictable as Guy Fawkes bonfires. But what makes us most vulnerable is the abruptness of what is called the ‘wildland-urban interface’, where real estate collides with fire ecology. And castles without their glacises are not very defensible.