On July 23rd, wildfires spread across a small town near Athens, the capital of Greece. The fires, the worst in more than a decade, began and spread so quickly that many in the small town of Mati did not have a chance to escape. More than 80 people were killed and hundreds more were injured. Wildfires are not unique to Greece. They occur all around the world.
At nearly the same time as the Greek wildfires, visitors to the Yosemite National Park in California, USA were forced to abandon their summer holiday plans when a huge wildfire spread close to the park. Park officials announced that Yosemite was not under immediate danger but still evacuated campers and visitors for their own safety. The last time the park was closed due to wildfire was in 1990.
Wildfires, also known as forest fires, grass fires and brush fires, are uncontrolled fires that happen outdoors across large areas of land. They are most common in warm and dry climates, such as in Australia and the US, where fire can spread most easily. Once a wildfire begins, it can last for many days or even weeks. Wildfires are so destructive that entire forests can be lost to the burn.
Fires can start in many ways. Often they begin naturally from lightning. When lightning strikes dry vegetation in a forest, even a small spark can lead to fire. People also cause wildfires without realizing it. Campfires that are not put out properly, fireworks or lit cigarettes dropped onto the ground can all cause wildfires to start. Sadly, some people intentionally start fires because they want to cause damage.
Wildfires are not a new issue. Many countries have wildfire seasons when fires are most likely to occur. However, as climate change continues to accelerate, the wildfire seasons in these countries are becoming longer and more dangerous. In the US, wildfires burn twice the area they did 50 years ago. Research shows that raising the temperature by one degree Celsius can increase the area burned by up to 600 percent.
Sometimes wildfires appear to die, but in reality they are still burning underground. These ground fires or peat fires can continue to burn through the winter and come back to life above ground the next summer. Wildfires sound horrible, but you might be surprised to learn that they have some benefits. Fires can help to control insect numbers, provide nutrients for the soil and even help some trees reproduce.