Seven Days After The Blaze
Key Points from the recent tragedy in Greece.
It’s been exactly a week since the devastating wildfires broke out in Attica causing the death of 91 persons with 25 still missing according to the authorities. It’s also been a week of grief, anger and outrage in the public debate.
Almost twenty years after the 1999 Earthquake in Athens with 145 dead the several wildfires in Attica, the country’s largest and main prefecture, fueled by gale force winds, destroyed everything on their path from the mountains down to the sea. Exactly a week ago, on the evening of Monday 23/07 a coastal paradise turned into hell in less than one and a half hours.
The fires started in Gerania mountain close to Kineta, an area west of Athens. Fire services responded immediately by sending planes and fire engines to battle the wildfire while the designated evacuation plan proved effective. In downtown Athens the sky was covered in a pink and brown color due to the smoke and everyone was snapping photos while listening to the radio. It was the first large fire in Attica for the summer and most of us weren’t afraid that worse could come due to the mobilization of the fire brigade. It was only a few hours later when the fire in the eastern part of Attica was sparked and burned everything on its way to the sea. At night when we started receiving the first information about the tragedy, the number of the deceased was already reaching 20. In the morning I woke up to the phone calls of international media calling me about the 40 to 50 burned people and the massive scale of the wildfire. I was in total shock.
A week later and having spent the three last days on the ground covering the situation for foreign press I’m still in shock. I’ve never covered wildfires in the past and the last tragedy I covered in autumn with 23 dead from floods in Mandra here in Attica, left me like everyone in Greece wondering: “What can be done or what could we have done to prevent natural disasters?”
More could have been done about, the wildfires around Athens have claimed the lives of more than 91 people and wreaked extensive damage in what appears to be the one of the worst disasters Greece has suffered in more than three decades. Last time Greece encountered such a tragedy it was when fires caused havoc in parts of the Peloponnese in 2007, when almost 90 people were killed. [Many Greeks claim that since then not much have changed. I don’t really know if this is true or not but when blazes raged east and west of Athens, sweeping through inhabited areas, a combination of the factors listed below led to the inferno of Mati a small seaside resort filled with summer residencies and apartments owned by retirees.
Here are some facts from being on the ground and from following the social debate during the last days.
• #AthensFire is second most lethal wildfire in the 21st century.
The tragedy that the country is experiencing over the past 24 hours worries about topicality across the globe, as both the number of deaths and the magnitude of the disaster are shocking.
The fires in Greece, which have killed at least 88 so far people, are the second most deadly of the 21st century after those who killed 173 people in Australia in 2009.
• We do not really know what caused the deadly fires.
No-one really knows. Fires near populated areas in Greece are often blamed on arsonists believed to be targeting forest land for development. Last Thursday, in a press conference held at the Civil Protection Ministry, government officials presented evidence and data that arsonists acted very organized. A 65 years old man is held as a suspect for arsony because he was burning trash in a nearby field. As Kathimerini reports, despite talk by government officials that arsonists could have been behind Monday’s wildfires, an investigation conducted by the Hellenic Fire Service’s arson department (DAEE) suggested the cause was negligence.
Also, while the Greek government hasn’t really played the “destabilization” card, many of their supporters believe that while SYRIZA was doing politically great, “dark forces” and foreign secret agents are now trying to overthrow them. The facts are that it was one of the hottest, driest and windiest weeks of the summer so the perfect conditions for an inferno were out there.
• There were the perfect conditions for an inferno.
The area of Mati like all the coastal areas of Eastern Attica is full pine trees in the forests being particularly flammable. This day the weather was extremely favourable for the fire to spread; the temperature was over 36°C, the gale-force winds were at at 100 knots in some places, and humidity in the atmosphere was very low. So, you can imagine how easily a forest could be set on fire.
The whole area feels like a trap with limited access to the sea, with homes built in wooded areas with actually no fire safety, narrow roads and numerous dead-ends. While we had parked our car with my crew in a “central” street of the area we could have never found access to the beach to shoot the area if some locals did not help us spot a hidden corridor that leads to the beach. A hidden path half 90 centimeters almost a meter wide between the fences of the two houses. Even though the public character of beaches is protected by the Greek Constitution some owners “hide” the access so it works it functions more as a private corridor, creating these dead ends their privacy. Mati was allowed to develop into a residential area with so few access/escape routes due to the clientelistic relationship between contractors, residents and the state. Houses were built haphazardly with lots of dead ends and little streets, and few escape routes. Some streets are not even asphalted even though most of the houses are permanent residences and not holiday home.
- The Blame Game just started and it’s more political than we can imagine.
The whole blame game was started by Greece’s Defence Minister Panos Kammenos when he told the BBC that illegal construction contributed to one of the country’s worst-ever wildfire disasters. He said that building by residents between wooded areas was a “crime” that had resulted in blocking escape routes. He was confronted by angry locals as he visited areas devastated by fires and he argued that the actions of some residents had closed the roads to the beach. The question arising is “If it’s a crime from the past, with these properties, the majority are without a licence, and they have occupied the coast without rules. should people be punished with death?
Kammenos’ visit in Mati outlined the governmental “defense” line and sparked the blame game with mainstream media in Greece attacking fiercely the SYRIZA led government while SYRIZA also started boycotting SKAI TV and its affiliated media.
This blame game and the hostile atmosphere in the public dialogue have led a family that lost their two kids to ban any press from the funerals.
• The crisis management by the Greek Government could have been better.
Given the tension created with Kammenos’ gaffe, the government held a late-night news conference on Thursday in an attempt to respond to growing criticism about the way authorities dealt with the fire. Amid growing calls for officials to resign the key governmental line of defense was that the illegal construction next to the shoreline in Mati had contributed to the disaster and that emergency services did their best.
This proved as a poor handling of the aftermath of the disaster on the communications front and has increased the pressure on the government, especially with regard some public acceptance of responsibility, or simply saying “sorry” to the Greek people and asking some of the ministers to resign as a matter of dignity.
The prime minister Alexis Tsipras has claimed personally the political responsibility for the management of the crisis, on a bold move to battle public disappointment and rage among fierce criticism from the media.
- There wasn’t and there won’t be any culture of disaster prevention.
Even if Mati is a summer destination there must have been a rescue plan. The mayor of Rafina-Pikermi, the municipality where Mati belongs administratively, named Vangelis Bournous, told me that even if there was a plan no one would have followed because of the panic and the strong winds. That casualties would have been inevitable. “Fire crisscrossed a distance of 3 kilometers in a quarter of an hours, normally faster than a car can go in our area. Citizens do not follow evacuation plans at a 100% but they stay behind to protect their households. We might have had less victims with a well-organized evacuation plan but when the fire was set in the Municipality of Penteli there was no evacuation order for the east part because of the direction of the wind that came from the opposite side. Also, the main body of the fire brigade was in Kinetta, 40 km away. The fire was underestimated and finally all the above were mistakes that resulted in our mourning so many human lives.”
And the residents did not really request any preparedness plans for a major fire in the past. They rely on volunteer firefighting teams that work closely with Civil Protection but such plans are made for smaller scale scenarios.
The warning system of 112 — Greece’s national emergency help line — isn’t working yet.
Also there was very little time for any warnings sent and communicated. Most of the residents I talked to said that even though every single policeman or firefighter is a hero, especially traffic policemen who had the role of helping with the evacuation that did not really know where to direct the people because of the little time.
- You can really easy be found on a boat fighting for your life like a refugee.
One of the things that struck everyone in Greece apart from the massive scale of losses and devastation is the unprecedented and massive scale of solidarity and compassion to those affected. After the first calls from the emergency services for blood donations, people from low-income neighborhoods rushed to the hospitals, the Kurdish, Palestinians Syrians and Iraqis communities of Athens came in organized for blood donation. Egyptian fishermen were saving those stranded on rocks with their boats. Citizens from all over Attica brought materials to the town hall of Rafina-Pikermi and 48 hours later the authorities thanked everyone for their response announcing that they have plenty of things that are needed while the hospitals can not take any more blood donations and they have covered their needs for months.
Cyrpus, Albania and FYROM have donated hundreds of thousands of euros and goods showing a good gesture of friendship and neighborly kindness and Turkish people have flooded social media with wishes for fast recovery. Turkish football teams have been photographed with solidarity banners.
A special account managed by the president of the Greek parliament Nikos Voutsis has been opened for donations, including those from abroad, which would be used to address the damage done to homes and infrastructure. The Greek Parliament has will initially contribute 10 million euros to the account while the Onassis and Latsis Foundation 5 million euros each and the Greek government promised that they will pitch in with 40 million to the rebuilding effort. Businessmen and companies have donated hundreds of thousands and businesses since day one offer anything they can to relieve the pain. The U.S. provided combat drones and Navy surveillance aircraft helping Greece gather images of the fire-ravaged areas. Also the crew of a US vessel stationed in Piraeus was there to help in case it was called in.
• The Greek state needs to stop paying the salary of these men.
If there is something that I’m really curious is how did the Greek Church help? Last year, when the law about civil partnerships was voted by the Greek parliament some Bishops were ringing the bells of their parishes to demonstrate their anger. Now, Greek Church remains silent with no response.
Bishops Jeremy and Anthimos were not ashamed to claim that the wildfires were the wrath of God for an atheist prime minister.
“Atheist Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras draws the wrath of God,” Amvrosios writes in capital letters on his blog on Tuesday afternoon and added “Greece is damaged from rain and fire!”
Bishop Jeremy repeated the same nonsense.
• Golden Dawn is looting what’s left behind.
Four individuals were arrested shortly after the fires looting burned households and two of them are organized with Golden Dawn, Greece’s neonazi party. Never made it to the headlines, while if they were undocumented migrants they would have probably been lynched.
Attica locals chased Golden Dawn members away from the fire, with one woman shouting she “wouldn’t even take water from fascists”.
- Tsipras’ plans for exiting the Memorandum era are burned down to the ground.
While Alexis Tsipras and his government seemed to have been winning more and more ground on an international level trying to build momentum by solving the dispute over FYROM’s name, dealing with Turkish aggression and heading towards the bailout exit on August 20, now his cabinet needs to deal with probably more than 100 dead citizens.
The current Greek government is now stigmatized as “murderers” and being heavily attached to power as none resigned, while Tsipras’ opponent Mitsotakis who has adopted a milder and more low-key approach over the tragedy is probably gaining more voters who are disappointed by the way SYRIZA has handled the crisis. Now, it will be very interesting to see what trick SYRIZA will pull off to navigate the public opinion back to the designated course of growth and recovery and and how will the Greek society respond.