House in Mati, Wednesday, July 25

Some Notes on Greece’s Wildfires

A few days after the disaster it’s time to start thinking about what went wrong.

Photos: Elvira Krithari

On Monday’s early noon I saw a massive cloud of smoke approaching my home in Athens’ southern suburbs. It covered the whole part of the sky that was visible from my apartment’s balcony and despite I had heard in the news about the fire outbreak in Kineta, an area in western Attica, I could never imagine the havoc that would begin just a few hours later.

Wildfires are common in Greece, especially seasonal ones. Summer’s heat and a plethora of flammable materials such as dry grass are among the causes of fires that can often start by a humble cigarette thrown in a place it was not meant to be thrown or from a damaged utility pole.

Arson is another cause. At the time that Kineta was in flames and a significant amount of the firefighting forces were gathered there, a new fire front appeared on the opposite — eastern — side of Attica. There, the areas of Mati, Neos Voutzas and Rafina’s parts were wrapped in flames late in the afternoon the same day. The situation escalated quickly due to the wild wind. Until now that this note is being written, 87 adults and kids have died and the death toll is expected to grow. It is believed that the fires were man-made.

East Attica, and especially Penteli, the mountain from which the deadly fire began, has experienced at least 12 massive wildfires in the last 40 years. Thousands of forest acres have been turned to burnt land, flora and fauna has been disappearing. Houses had been burned down again in the past. The exact same areas that were put in flames in July 2018, had been affected again in the summer of 2005. So, if fire is not a rare condition in Greece why it caught us by surpirse? Why so many dead?

Various explanations were given. The winds that day were extremely fierce. According to Rafina’s mayor –whose property was also destroyed- it took 15 minutes for the fire to cover 3 klm, reducing the time that people had to react and escape. Moreover, the areas lacked of escape routes. Their urban plan is non-existent. Building without permission in the past, created neighborhoods with insufficient spaces for a case of emergency. People were trapped in a labyrinth full of dead-ends.

Streets in Mati, East Attica, Tuesday, July 24

At the same time, residents say that firefighting forces were not there on time. I filed a question to the fire brigade’s press office whether their equipment was old and if they had staff reductions and cuts on their budget, especially in the years of economic decline, and they answered that “at this juncture it is not feasible to answer your question”.

So what will happen next?

I can’t tell. Probably some of the houses will be restored, the unbearable smell of burnt lives will faint with the help of other strong winds and the wildfires of the summer of 2018 will infuse the collective memory of future generations, as the earthquake of 1981 has done, even for us that we hadn’t been born at the time.

A street in Mati, Tuesday, July 24

But for some of our people, things will be more complicated. For the parents of the twin 9 years-old girls that were born and died together, along with their grandparents, for the woman that lost her husband, her son and her daughter, for the man that had to decide who to leave behind, his 90 years-old mother or his wife and son, for the kids of the old couple that decided to stay together in the flames because the man wasn’t able to move and for all the friends and relatives of the people that were so tragically lost, life will be a burden.

I always thought that there is wisdom in the dead. I figured this out when I saw my late grandmother the day of her funeral. She looked peaceful and wise, like she had experienced every aspect of a human’s life and she had solved every mystery in it. In Greece’s modern Pompeii, an image will stay with me forever: two kids, brothers probably, hugging each other.

Nothing was ordinary in that scene. But the two little people kept a last wise reminder for the rest of us: that the way we organized our communities, the decision to place our existences in a structured system was to ensure our safety and thus survival. We stay together in order to live, not to die together. And this is from where the tragic story of a summer’s wildfires starts becoming political.


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