5th Deadliest Wildfire Globally in Past 100 Years: 87 Dead from Monday's Greek Fires

July 27, 2018, 3:02 PM EDT

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Above: Firefighters try to extinguish flames during a wildfire at the village of Kineta, near Athens, Greece, on July 24, 2018. Image credit: Valerie Gache/AFP.

The death toll from the horrific July 23 fires in Attica, Greece has risen to 87, with dozens more missing. According to statistics from EM-DAT, the international disaster database, this would make the Greek fires of 2018 the deadliest in European history--and fifth deadliest worldwide in the past century. Here is how the top-five list of deadliest wildfire events globally since 1918 now looks:

  1. 1000 deaths, 1918 (Cloquet fire, Minnesota, U.S.)
  2. 240 deaths, 1997 (Indonesia forest fires)
  3. 191 deaths, 1987 (Black Dragon fire, China and Soviet Union)
  4. 180 deaths, 2009 (Black Saturday bushfires, Australia)
  5. 87 deaths, 2018 (Attica, Greece)

Note that premature deaths from inhalation of fire smoke are not included in the list. For the period 1997 – 2006, Johnston et al. estimated an average of 339,000 deaths occurred each year worldwide due to inhalation of wildfire smoke.  Koplitz et al. (2016) found that the death toll from the air pollution associated with the 2015 Indonesian forest fires was over 100,000, while Kunii and Yajima (2002) found an air pollution death toll of 15,000 from the 1997 Indonesian fires. (Note also that EM-DAT incorrectly lists the October 20, 1944 Cleveland East Ohio Gas explosion, with 121 deaths, as being the 5th deadliest wildfire of the past century. EM-DAT is also missing the Kursha-2 fire of 1936 in the Soviet Union with a death toll of 1200, though the source used for that article is a geocaching website (http://www.geocaching.su/?pn=101&cid=1956), and may not be reliable).

Wind gusts
Figure 1. Wind gusts observed at automated stations on July 23, 2018, in Attica, Greece. The town of Mati, about 10 miles east-northeast of Athens, was the location of the deadliest fires. Winds gusts near 52 mph (84 km/h) were observed there. Image credit: National Observatory of Athens, Greece

Meteorology of the 2018 Attica, Greece fires

The two largest wildfires--one 10 miles east-northeast of Athens near Mati, and the other 30 miles west of Athens, in Kineta--broke out Monday during hot, dry, windy conditions. Athens Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport, located about 5 miles southwest of the Mati fire, experienced a high of 38.1°C (101°F), accompanied by accompanied by humidity values as low as 17%. Strong westerly winds, very unusual for this time of year, accompanied the hot and dry conditions: a wind gust of 102 kph (63 mph) was reported at the airport at 18 UTC, and wind gusts as high as 124 kph (77 mph) were recorded in the area (Figure 1).

Climate change and the 2018 Greece fires

According to a recent study by the National Observatory of Athens (NCAA), as reported by WWF, in the period 2021 to 2050, climate change is expected to bring Greece 30 additional high-risk fire days each year, as hotter temperatures dry out the vegetation, making fires more likely. The risk will also be higher due to an increase in the number of dry days.

However, the case that climate change contributed to this week’s fires is not as strong as the case one could make for the current fires ravaging California and Scandinavia. The fire risk has not been unusually high for Greece this summer (see tweet above). It has been hot in the portion of Greece affected by the fires, with temperatures averaging about 1.5°C (2.7°F) above average during the first three weeks of July, according to data from NOAA. Certainly, a warmer planet because of global warming makes hot summers more likely, and we can say climate change increased the risk of Greece’s fires in this manner. However, Greece has seen near-average rainfall in July, and the July 12 drought summary for June for Greece from the Drought Management Center for Southeastern Europe showed no drought for the nation. The big weather factor driving Monday’s firestorm were the winds, which were unusually strong and gusty. How climate change might impact the strength of winds on summer days in Greece is unknown.

For information on the breaking news story of the Redding, California fires that have killed one person and forced over 10,000 to evacuate, see the latest weather.com story.

The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.

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Dr. Jeff Masters

Dr. Jeff Masters co-founded Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. in air pollution meteorology at the University of Michigan. He worked for the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990 as a flight meteorologist.


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