Wildfires broke out on Rhodes and other islands amid record heat, forcing thousands to evacuate.
A prolonged heatwave in Greece led to widespread wildfires in July 2023, causing mass evacuations. NASA-affiliated scientists tracked the situation using satellite imagery, and the organization’s Earth Applied Sciences Disasters program is supporting relief efforts by providing crucial data. Climate projections suggest such fires could become more common due to global warming.
Wildfires raging across the Greek island of Rhodes sent tens of thousands of locals and tourists scrambling for safety in late July 2023. A prolonged stretch of extreme heat contributed to high fire risk across much of the country. Blazes also ignited on the mainland and the islands of Corfu and Evia.
Satellite Imagery of the Crisis
On July 19, the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8 acquired this image of fire activity on Rhodes. The image is natural color, with the infrared signature from actively burning fires overlaid in red. Thick smoke can be seen drifting westward toward the Aegean Sea.
This image captures the start of what turned into an intense period of wildfire.
Fire Progression and Evacuation Measures
NASA-affiliated scientists were able to track the fires’ spread with the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) sensor on the NASA-NOAA Suomi NPP satellite. Calculating the perimeter of actively burning areas every 12 hours, Eli Orland and Tess McCabe observed how the Rhodes fire spread relatively slowly at first, then picked up rapidly. Between July 21 and July 23, it underwent a six-fold increase in size, from approximately 25 to 150 square kilometers (10 to 60 square miles), according to their analysis. Orland is a research associate at Goddard Space Flight Center and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and McCabe is a post-doctoral associate at the University of Maryland, College Park.
An estimated 19,000 people evacuated from areas threatened by the blazes, according to news reports. Many sought refuge in makeshift shelters such as schools, gymnasiums, and docked ships, while some in seaside villages boarded coast guard vessels to move to safety.
Countrywide Fire Situation
As of July 24, there were 82 fires burning across Greece, with 64 of those starting on July 23. In addition to the many people impacted on Rhodes, upwards of 2,500 people on Corfu were evacuated, and residents of villages in southern Evia found themselves in harm’s way as high winds fanned the flames.
Climate Projections and Fire Patterns
Fires are not unusual in Greece, but heat-stoked fire weather is projected to become more common as the planet warms. The intense fire season of 2021 came on the heels of extreme heat, and the number of fires and area burned in Greece were far above average. Experts think the current heat wave is set to become Greece’s longest on record, with temperatures exceeding 40°C (104°F) for days on end in late July. The area burned by fires is more than double the average for this point in the year.
NASA’s Assistance and Data Provision
NASA’s Earth Applied Sciences Disasters program area has been activated in assist with the fires in Greece, responding to a request from the World Central Kitchen for data and imagery of the fires’ location and impacts to inform their humanitarian efforts in setting up kitchens for those affected. As new information becomes available, the team will be posting maps and data products on its open-access mapping portal.