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European Wildfires Are Detonating Unexploded 100-year-old Shells Fired in WWI

Published: July 25, 2022
This photograph taken on July 22, 2022 shows wildfires close to the villages of Temnica and Lipa in western Slovenia. 100-year-old ordinances, dropped during World War I are detonating endangering the lives of firefighters trying to bring the blazes under control. (Image: JURE MAKOVEC/AFP via Getty Images)

Ordnance used over 100 years ago and left on the battlegrounds of the First World War is now detonating due to wide spread wild fires, posing an explosive risk to firefighters as they struggle to bring blazes, burning across the European continent, under control. 

In the Kras region in Slovenia’s southwest a wildfire is currently burning and detonating multiple unexploded ordinances (UXOs) left in the ground from World War I. 

The fire remains relatively small, burning just eight square miles in the region; but it has forced at least three villages on the border of Slovenia and Italy to evacuate, including the border town of Opatje Selo. 

Over 1,000 firefighters and members of the Slovenian military are fighting the blaze. 

While the fires present an obvious risk to individuals fighting the fires, the added danger of UXOs is making efforts to bring the blazes under control much more dangerous.

Local media reported that an explosion sent bits of shrapnel flying dangerously close to a group of firefighters.

Slovenia has employed bomb disposal teams to address the threat and Austria and Croatia have dispatched helicopter crews to assist in the efforts, Task and Purpose reported.  

The fire in Slovenia is but one of several that are ravaging Europe and have prompted numerous governments across the continent to issue evacuation orders. The fires are made worse by a heatwave that has settled over the region.   

The high temperatures reportedly melted a Royal Air Force runway in the United Kingdom last week; according to Spanish authorities, fires in Spain have killed at least 500 people. 

According to World War I historian Simon Jones, the ordnances appear to be standard explosives and it is highly unlikely that the bombs contain mustard gas or other chemical weapons. 

Speaking with Reuters, Jones noted that in 1918, Austro-Hungarian forces had ordered mustard gas shells to the border front against Italy; however, there is no evidence any were actually used. 

Austria-Hungary was a kingdom occupying territory in Austria, Eastern Europe, and today’s Balkan countries, including Slovenia.


Wildfires ravage Europe

Over this past weekend at least 53 new wildfires broke out across Greece as the National Fire Service struggled to contain blazes burning in Evros, Lesbos and near the western town of Geneva, Euronews reported. 

Giannis Oikonomou, a Greek government spokesperson, told reporters, “The climate crisis is now evident across Europe, with particular intensity in the wider Mediterranean region. The cocktail of high temperatures, gusty winds and heavy drought inevitably leads to wildfires.”

“Europe must act in a coordinated and rapid manner to reverse the climate crisis. The solution cannot be given at a national level, because the problem is transnational and huge,” he added. 

In Poland, temperatures reached as high as 36.7 degrees Celsius (98 Fahrenheit) in the western town of Kornik, prompting authorities to issue heat warnings for many parts of the country.

In Italy, fires continue to burn in Tuscany and Friuli Venezia Giulia, however do not appear to be spreading, while new fires sprung up in the mountains of Bologna and north of Milan. 

According to the country’s health ministry, 14 cities, including Rome and Milan, were placed on the country’s highest heatwave alert. 

Last week in Portugal, authorities claimed the heat had killed more than 1,000 people and caused numerous wildfires to erupt across the nation. Portugal’s health authority told Reuters that 1,063 excess deaths in the country were recorded due to the heatwave from July 17 to July 18. 

On July 19, firefighters fought to contain the region’s largest wildfire in over three decades. Authorities said that a man had been detained on suspicion of arson, Reuters reported.

The blaze spread over 75 square miles and forced the evacuation of more than 30,000 people.  

A researcher at Lisbon University’s faculty of science, Carlos Antunes, said the data indicates that the elderly were the most likely to die due to heatwaves.

“With climate change, it is expected that this increase in mortality will intensify and therefore we have to take measures at the public health level to minimize the impact,” he told Reuters.