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Life On The Greek Island Of Evia Will Never Be The Same After Catastrophic Fires

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Wildfires raged in southern Europe throughout this hot, dry summer, which client - climate scientists say is the new normal. Greece lost more than a million acres of woodland, including an enormous swath of forest on its second largest island, Evia. Joanna Kakissis reports on how life on the island has been forever changed.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS SINGING AND WATER RUNNING)

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Athina Zioga often plays this video she recorded earlier this summer. It's from her favorite hike in a forest above her village. You can hear songbirds and a babbling brook and a breeze she remembers as scented with wild oregano.

ATHINA ZIOGA: I spend a lot of time here. Every day, I was coming here with my dog, and it was my oxygen. It was my power to live.

KAKISSIS: She lives in the seaside town of Limni in northern Evia, Greece's second largest island. Catastrophic fires destroyed Evia's forest, which used to be one of the largest in Greece.

The forest is now silent. Zioga walks to a charred tree trunk near the entry to her hiking trail.

ZIOGA: Over here.

KAKISSIS: Oh, my God, it's still smoking.

ZIOGA: People called me and asked me, is your house safe? Are you OK? I said, yeah, I'm OK, but the four walls weren't my house. All this was my house. Yeah, and my house burned.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH BELLS AND SINGING)

KAKISSIS: Villagers mourned their forest at a recent church service in the Limni. They blame arson and government incompetence for the catastrophe. They're also angry that their leaders are not prepared to protect land dried out by climate change.

GIANNIS KALOMOIRIS: (Speaking Greek).

KAKISSIS: Farmer Giannis Kalomoiris joined nine other volunteer firefighters who tried to protect the forest.

KALOMOIRIS: (Through interpreter) But this fire was straight out of mythology, something like the Hydra of Lerna. Cut off one head of fire, and four more would come at you.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH BELLS RINGING)

KAKISSIS: Limni's village president, Giannis Triantafyllou says the state sent professional firefighters too late. He looks at the charred hills from a bench by the sea.

GIANNIS TRIANTAFYLLOU: (Through interpreter) We should not only blame climate change for the loss of our forest, our source of life. We are also responsible for protecting it.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOAT BLEATING)

KAKISSIS: About a 15-minute drive into the burned forest, Maria Anagnostou feeds her goats in the village of Kourkouloi. She rescued the goats from the fire.

MARIA ANAGNOSTOU: (Speaking Greek, crying).

KAKISSIS: She chokes up talking about it.

M ANAGNOSTOU: (Through interpreter) I ran to a church, and the goats huddled around me. The fire was right at my feet. I'm 60 years old, and I've never been so afraid.

KAKISSIS: The fire killed many of her neighbors' flocks. It also wiped out the village's main source of work, collecting pine resin, which is sold for use in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and paint. Much of Greece's pine resin came from Evia.

GIORGOS ANAGNOSTOU: (Speaking Greek).

KAKISSIS: And Maria Anagnostou's son, Giorgos, collected much of it from around 17,000 trees. Giorgos blinks away tears as we drive through the remains of the forest.

G ANAGNOSTOU: (Through interpreter) My daughter is 3 years old. I've cried more these days than she's probably cried in her entire life. I heave from the sobs.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

KAKISSIS: We walk to the top of a mountain he's been climbing since he was a little boy. The view is devastating.

G ANAGNOSTOU: (Through interpreter) This used to be paradise, and now it's hell. There were trees here that were 400 years old. Even when my daughter grows old, she won't get to see trees like that here again.

KAKISSIS: The Greek government says it will replant the forest. But Giorgos Anagnostou says resin collectors cannot wait for the trees to grow and will likely have to move to find work.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR SHUTTING)

KAKISSIS: Down the mountain at a village called Rovies, Zoe Chalasti shows me the burnt remains of the patisserie she's run with her husband for 38 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS CRUNCHING)

KAKISSIS: Broken glass and charred wood carpet the floor. We walk past trays of blackened discs that used to be tiny, cream-filled sponge cakes.

ZOE CHALASTI: (Speaking Greek).

KAKISSIS: She points to a row of honey jars. Evia used to be a main producer of Greek honey. The jar survived the fire, but most of the island's beehives did not.

CHALASTI: (Speaking Greek).

KAKISSIS: Our bees have burned, and our trees have burned, she says, and I'm struggling to picture what we can do to recover.

Down the street, 11-year-old Kostas Steffos rides his bike past his burned home.

KOSTAS STEFFOS: (Speaking Greek).

KAKISSIS: Losing the forest makes him feel empty, he says, like losing a family member. Kostas helped his dad save the family's sheep from the fire, swatting the flames with a makeshift broom.

(CROSSTALK)

KAKISSIS: Nine-year-old Konstantina Tsamoura saw the forest burn from a night ferry evacuating her family from her village of Limni. Her parents shot this video as they fled.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KONSTANTINA TSAMOURA: Lots of flames.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Did you see them coming from the mountains?

TSAMOURA: Mmm hmm.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: What did you think about that?

TSAMOURA: I was really scared that I would never see Limni again and our house.

KAKISSIS: Konstantina hugs her cat and says she's happy she could come home. But she worries that Limni will now be hotter without the trees, and the heat already makes her feel bad.

TSAMOURA: Like my brain's crazy with, like, 2,000 layers of blankets on me.

KAKISSIS: And as this devastating summer ends, her parents are also trying to talk to her about fall and winter rains because, without the trees, there will be floods.

For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis on the island of Evia, Greece. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.