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31 August 2007

Greece on Fire... what happened so far

My personal account

For those tuning in late or having only heard some information on international news media, I'd like to give a little bit of overview and background information about the fires in Greece in the summer of 2007. As far as we got right now, because some of the fires are still burning. Let's start in chronological order. I'm following my own experience here, if you want dates and exact places, have a look at 2007_Greek_forest_fires on wikipedia. If you want to read how I (and the people here around me) experienced things here in Athens, read on...

First big fire in Parnitha, first series of fires

One evening at the end of June I came home to see a large cloud towering in the clear blue sky. It looked a bit like the cumulus clouds before large thunderstorms, but it was alone and it was somehow "laying on its side". I couldn't place it. In the evening my flatmate was sitting outside on the balcony, studying and being showered in tiny flakes: Ashes were coming down. Remarkably it took me a while to find out what was happening: The forest of Parnitha was on fire, the largest forest area on the Attika peninsula, the lungs of Athens. In fact the fire was reported for days, not being taken serious by the fire brigade, and of course not extinguished while it still was small. Instead it turned into a firestorm that ate through almost all of that huge forest area. Even when the size of the catastrophe underway was clear, fire brigade forces were diverted to the casino/hotel in the area, instead of being deployed to work on saving as much forest as possible.

Athenians were shocked. But we were shocked and couldn't believe it. We were aware that we had lost so much, but couldn't really place that information. The fire had burned *what*?

The first demonstration

Some people started to understand what was going on. A handful of Greek bloggers called out and called everybody to protest on the main square of Athens (Syntagma square), outside the parliament. This was not going to be something organized by political parties, this was the people going to show their concern. The "invitation" travelled by mobile phone text message, e-mail, and on blogs. An estimated 2500 people assembled outside the parliament and cursed the politicians for their negligence, for their uselessness, and the damage they had done. Most TV stations and major newspapers ignored the protests. They didn't fit in with the usual party politics.

I called some friends and found out they were going too. We arrived by Metro and noticed others arriving. All age groups were there, including families with small children. We went right up to the memorial for the unknown soldier, where tourists usually take pictures of the traditional "Evzones" guards. The guards weren't very confortable, they were surrounded by demonstrators who were shouting at the parliament. Each of them was protected by four army officers, since they had to stand still themselves.

About a week later hand copied posters showed up in my neighborhood: "Now we have to watch over Ymittos!" Ymittos are the forested hills on our side of Athens, just a short hike from where I live, up the slopes that go almost all around Athens. But it didn't take long for the fires to start again.

When Ymittos was set on fire (reports by nearby residents point to arsonists), the police was ordered to facilitate the approach of the firetrucks. The result was a traffic chaos that even our already traffic plagued metropolis hasn't seen very often. Firetrucks arrived often an hour after they woud normally have been expected. It took a while and more than necessary burned down, but the fire was in check after some time. Thiswasn't the only fire though: In more than a few places all over Greece fires had started up. They seemed large at the time, some of them causing adjacent national roads to be temporarily blocked.

Second fires, planes over the roof

That series of fires came to an end and it seemed that this was the usual summer fire spectacle, a bit larger than usual, but still well in the normal range. Things quieted down. My vacations started and since my girlfriend had to leave for a few days on family business for Germany, I visited a friend near Patras. I came by some of the burned forests there. Quiet days followed, We travelled some more, visited a few Greek islands that were under alert for fires, but so far have been spared.

We came home at the end of last week (on August 23rd), relaxing in Athens, buying some furniture for my room. On Saturday we were having our typical Greek siesta, when we heard planes overhead. Those weren't jet planes, and they were flying low. We went up to the roof of our building to have a look. A couple of Canadair fire fighting planes and a russian Beriev (in the same role) were repeatedly flying over to a patch of dark smoke coming from Ymittos forest at the outskirts of the city. So Ymittos was buring again, and this time the fire fighting planes were droning directly over our house. I took a picture. It took them three hours to control that fire.

Fire near Athens, fires on Peloponnese, Evia, other places

What we also saw on the roof was another source of smoke, coming from a more northern direction, and not with a so readily identifiable source. Where was it coming from? We didn't know, but it was a huge brownish, blackish cloud. It almost blotted out the sun, leaving it shine yellow and faint, painting the like as if it was sundown. There are spectacular pictures of this out there, for example at thrilOS website.

We went down to check the news. All hell was coming down. Greece was burning in Evia, on Peloponnese, in some other areas. News reported rumours about fires in Athens parks. A mess was going on. Soon the reports of the first deaths arrived. From this moment on, all of Greece has either been glued to their TV sets for news... unless they were defending their fields and villages with whatever means they had. We followed the news like people follow the news of a war.

The air started to become thick. It got hard to breathe. It wasn't only that there was "stuff" in the air, ashes, particles. It was also that there was oxygen missing. I felt short-breathed. I didn't feel like I had the power to do much, even if I wasn't being told to stay inside and close all windows by the news. It was hot (I don't have air condition at home), but we closed all windows. Ashes started to come down like snow. The ashes got everywhere, even days later we found ashes in unexpected places like closed wardrobes. And the smell: It smelled like burned wood, constantly. The thick air and the burned wood small plagued us for all of Sunday and were noticeable even on Monday. It helped to remind us on the catastrophe, in our wall of civilization and concrete.

Days and days

The following days were an avalanche of bad news raining down on us. Fires seemed to be everywhere. The pictures of flames and scorched earth were indeed everywhere. Most tv channels did not have anything but endless news reports. Again we were reminded of a war, with different fronts where we tried to follow on the progress of the good (the firemen, the villagers fighting for their homes) and the bad (the flames, the new fire herds coming up).

The really bad news started to come in too. People who had died. People who had to evacuate their villages. The ever growing destruction. The wall of fire that did not seem to be stoppable. The wind, always working for the fire, always re-igniting what seemed already to have been saved. It also often hindered the fire planes from doing their work, along with the night. I remember the first nights of that period, when I would lie awake at night, thinking about all the destruction, all the struggle.

How did these fires start?

Another thing started to be discussed very much in these days: How did the fires start? With the first fires and especially with the fires close to Athens, arson was invariably the primary suspicion. And rightly so, since unscrupulous people have been burning down woods to get their greedy hands on land to build on and sell. The police, the courts, and the politicians don't seem to care about this. Recent studies showed that convicted arsonists received very little punishment. The profiting from burned forests was tolerated almost publicly.

In the past these people were considered (by everybody but environmentalists) like minor criminals who destroyed public property for their personal advantage. Now they should be considered manslaughers: The firefighting planes that took three hours to make noise over my home and control the fire near Athens would have been desperately needed in the Peleponnese, where people were dying in the flames.

But arson isn't responsible for all of these fires. Negligence is another big factor. People are not acting responsible. In two weeks of my vacation time I've seen twice people burn dry leaves in their garden, something that should not be done at all in the fire season. Do these people believe it can't happen to them? Do they think they are in any way different from the construction workers who ignited one of the deadly fires by grinding ironworks or the old woman who didn't think of the sparks coming out of her wood oven? Those were just two cases where we read about people being arrested by the police.

What made the fires so big?

There are a couple of intertwined reasons for the fires getting out of hand. The start can be searched after the last elections (but of course the roots go even farther back). With the change of the ruling party, parlamentarians from the "new" party in government started to push people from their voters and supporters into key roles in the fire department. Older and more experienced fire brigade officers had to leave to make room for "party line" people. Victims of some of the first fires reported that the fire brigade people ran up and down, with no idea what to do. The fire brigade was neglected on a longer scale already though: I've read reports of their manuals being from the 1970's, and other reports of volunteers not even being given gloves (not talking about the farmers and townspeople who try to fight the flames with whatever they have, even with branches). Fire protection of the forests is in the dead center of control of four government agencies, where one agency makes the emergency plans and another agency is in charge of bringing them into action (often without knowing the plans at all).

There are other, more natural reasons though. I already mentioned the wind, and the night. We also had a very dry winter, and a very hot spring and summer. The underbrush is dried out. A fire that sprang up near a village on Peloponnese was reported to have reached a width of 1km within one hour (still it was reported to have been checked very fast, likely because it was spotted early enough).

A lot of fires were rekindled, because the weight of the fire brigade operations were put on the planes. Once the planes had managed to check a big fire, attention of the fire fighters moved on. Instead it would have been important to go by foot through the destroyed forest and extinguish all the smoking, lingering flames.

Who is to blame? What should have been done?

The politicians, the leadership of the country carries a very, very heavy part of the responsibility for the catastrophe. Their ongoing sabotage of the fire brigade service, something as vital and necessary for the country, can not be excused.

The politicians have become weary of the fires. The fires have lessened, but they are still raging, with this evening four more villages having to be evacuated. The media and the politicians have enough of this though. The government is running forward with giving money to the victims of the fires. Or rather to everybody who comes along: The 3000 Euro emergency funds for fire victims are given to everybody who shows up at a bank and fills out a form, signing it and showing an ID card. The politicians are fighting on a different front from the rest of the country: In a couple of weeks we have elections. They want to be remembered for having given money, not for having f* up when they should have helped their people.

The silver bullet and the terrorism scare

One of the first actions of the prime minister was to get more fire fighting airplanes into the country. This has been considered as a good move, but it is only partially so. Other important steps (like rounding up support from forest workers and the armed forces) have been neglected. The politicians are looking for the silver bullet: "Where can we spend some money, show off and solve it all at once?" But fires don't get put out only with airplanes, see above.

Next line of defense of the politicians were a conspiracy theory hunt of terrorists and foreign agents responsible for the fires. Nobody has ever seen any trace of foreign agents and no terrorists have come forward. In the same line goes the expression of "asymetric warfare" that is toted around by the government. There is no such thing happening. In fact the term was laid into the mouth of the minister of public safetey by the suggestive question of a journalist. Minister Polidoras, way beyond his mental capacity and with the back to the wall, grabbed the phrase as if someone had handed him a gun in a swordfight and he is shooting around with it ever since.

The demonstration in black

Last Monday, in the midst of the news storm, a mail reached me from a co-worker. A flyer for another demonstration, quite similar to the first one I had described. This one was going to be a demonstration in silence, dressed in black. We were going to express our sadness, our grief, our shame, and silently our anger. Again we would assemble on Syntagma square in front of the parliament, but this time we would not shout out our anger, we would rather shut up and let the silence speak.

The demonstration was scheduled for Wednesday evening. I arrived that morning at work, already dressed in black. I noticed several of my co-workers wearing black too. After work we left for the city center. In the Metro, more people dressed in black. On the way up it started to get thicker. The place was already swarming with the "blacks", but people were late in arriving. But they came and came. Even an hour after the "official" start of the demonstration, the exit stairs from the Metro were choked full. There were much more people than in the last demonstration (which was back then estimated at 2500 people). The square was overflowing into the side streets. Again, word of mouth, sms, emails, blogs had alerted the people.

The police was more prepared this time. A line of riot police with shields and batons was "protecting" the grave of the unknown soldier and the "Evzone" guards this time. Maybe they were expecting the little children in the demonstration to do some damage? We stood there in the crowd, adding our silent voices to the silent choir. Again people of all age groups were there. 70 to 80% of all attendants were wearing black.

I've read reports about the end of the demonstration not having been as friendly as it should. Apparently at some point the police started to shoot lightning grenades into the people, wounding some people.

What will happen to the people who lost their homes?

People who are victims of the fire receive an emergency amount of 3000Euro right now. People who have lost their home can get 10000Euro. The politicians are fast in showering out some money - it's not their money and if they get reelected, then they consider it well spent - if they don't get reelected, then they don't get to pay the bill as the next party will have its turn. Help is also coming in from private and public companies and persons and from donors from all around the world. This help is very important and the people are very thankful for it.

There isn't only the question of money. A lot of the people who have been uprooted were living for generations on their land. Their olive trees were often 400 to 600 years old. Their land, their animals, their houses... that was their life. They will survive, but their heart is broken. Some of the people who died were those who denied being evacuated from their soil, because they said they would be nothing with their world destroyed.

How will Greece recover?

Yes, Greece will live through this (remember, at the time of writing the fires are still raging, and the summer is not over yet). Greece will be around afterwards too. There may be negligence leading to such a tragedy here, there may be irresponsible and corrupt politicians. But there are also very human and strong people here. These people have survived occupation by foreign powers for centuries. They may be currently confused by the clash of their traditional ways with modern life, but in the end they will come back up.

The forests will come back, even if it takes, long, even if it takes a hundred years as some experts claim. A lot of Greece is still there, the fires destroyed much, but still a large part of the country remains intact. The wounds will heal.

Should you still travel to Greece?

Yes, certainly. I am a foreigner here, I came here because I like it here. I intend to stay here, and in my free time from work I intend to continue travelling through this country. If you planned to come to Greece, my message to you is to still come here, now even more than ever! Tourists failing to come and visit the beautiful and still intact parts of the country would be another economic blow to the people. The hospitality of Greece did not falter, you are still very much welcome here.

Posted by betabug at 00:49 | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (0)
ch athens
Life in Athens (Greece) for a foreigner from the other side of the mountains. And with an interest in digital life and the feeling of change in a big city. Multilingual English - German - Greek.
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Re: Greece on Fire... what happened so far

Yup, still coming.Be there Monday. I guess the Greeks didn't grow up with "Smokey the Bandit". He's the fire bear that teaches kids in school how to make safe fires and when not to make them...ciao

Posted by: rositta at August 31,2007 01:47
Re: Greece on Fire... what happened so far

Great write-up Sascha. I'm very sorry for the losses and hope some good things for the country come out of it.

Posted by: Simon at September 07,2007 03:10
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