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
on wikipedia. If you want to
read how I (and the people here around me) experienced things here in Athens,
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
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
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
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
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
A Film of 8
And a lot of burned stuff
Monday morning I dropped off 2 films at the shop where they develop my color films. Tuesday morning I got them back, developed and scanned. One of the films is a roll film "120", that I exposed on the Arca-Swiss over the last weeks. The Arca's format is 6x9cm, on a roll of film like that there is space for 8 pictures. I took 2 pictures on an excursion on Kithaironas, another 3 a week later at Parnitha, the last 3 another week later on the hills of Hymittos.
Eight pictures doesn't sound like much, but the philosophy of lugging around a "large format" camera (even if the Arca is a very small large format camera), is that you take fewer pictures and attempt to take better pictures. Personally I try to be ever more relaxed, tranquil about the whole affair of taking pictures. If I get nervous about doing things right, something's wrong.
Now, even if the pictures would have been lost or bad, I had done three small excursions full of nice views and experiences. Turns out, I also got back a film with 8 "good" pictures. No more light leaks so far, no misfiring shutters or operator mistakes. Now, that was a good feeling when looking at the results. I had quite enough of "this picture wouldn't have been half bad, if it hadn't been ruined". I'm also confident with the images themselves, even if I still see a lot of potential for artistic growth.
I'm giving a small example here, the burned branches of a tree on the Hymittos hills. There are a lot of burned trees in my pictures, both from Hymittos (from a part that burned down in 2009), from Parnitha (burned 2007), and on other films from the lake of Marathon (burned 2009).