Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Biblical catastrophe

Attica is on fire: masses of flames are speeding through a beautiful natural forest of tall pine trees, that is called ‘the lungs of Athens’. Fires moved from the north destroying houses and threatening the suburbs of Athens. This disaster is only two years after the big fires in the Peloponnesus, which caused the deaths of 70 people.

On Sunday I watched the fight against the inferno on television. It was remarkable because it was mostly ordinary citizens engaged in the battle using anything they thought might help them put out the flames. You saw people handling garden hoses, you saw men and women running with buckets full of water, you saw people shovelling sand on the fire with spades, you saw small bulldozers trying to shift the fire as it burned, but most of all you saw people beating the flames with tree branches.

The fire started on Friday night, it spread on Saturday and only on Sunday was it recognised to be such a catastrophe. Also on Sunday morning the government woke up and sent Prime Minister Karamanlis (of Neo Democratia) in a helicopter to fly over the burning region, while his political opponent Papandreou (from Pasok) visited a village besieged by flames. Then at last the government sent in the police and the army to help the fire-brigades who were helpless against so many fire centres spread over tens of kilometers. I am not sure who send out the milk cars to transport water, nor the train that was seen carrying water towards the fire-fighters.

In the morning and afternoon civilians were seen everywhere battling the fire, and in the few places where the firemen could get to, they gave a hand. All residents were ordered to evacuate, but many men, some women and even a few grandmothers refused and stayed behind to try to save their houses, or those of family or neighbours. They were right. How much more would the fires have spread if they hadn’t tried to help? Because at many places there were no fire-fighters, no helicopter or water bombers to be seen. They were all on their own. Their civil disobedience made them heroes.

In daytime it was mainly correspondents who talked about the fires on their tv-shows. But as the sun set, the real media carnival started because people could call in to the studios. The anchormen clearly had difficulties remaining calm dealing with the endless streams of angry words from callers. Some were even cut off. Well, how would you react if you are told to evacuate your family to Athens, but there was no place to go when you got there?

People were right to be angry. According to the BBC Greece does not have enough fire-fighters, nor enough equipment to fight big fires on this scale. It is clear that the government has learned no lessons from the wildfires of 2007. Except, perhaps, the municipalities who got the order in spring to keep the grass short at the side of public roads.

It is easy for the government to give orders like that. But whenever a municipality needs serious help of the capital, support is rarely forthcoming. Last week the mayor of Molyvos wrote an angry letter to the government to try and get more fire-trucks, and also to get help to nail down the arsonist who has been setting fires around Molyvos. Yes, it is sad but true, the fires in Molyvos have not stopped and keep starting up on a regular basis. Until now no houses have burned nor anyone hurt, but it is scary to think that one time it could get out off hand like as did in Attica.

Some weeks ago I was confronted with a fire in Eftalou, between the pizzeria and Hotel Panselinos. And I must admit, it was a terrifying experience although it was reassuring to see that many tourists and other passers-by joined in to help fight the flames with tree branches.

On the internet there are lots of tips that say what to do when your house is threatened by a wild fire. You have to remove inflammable furniture and other stuff completely away from the house, specially the wood stack if that is close to the house, saw dead branches out of the trees, or even better, saw down the whole tree like I saw doing some people doing in Attica. Turn off the gas, turn on all lights, so that the house stays visible in dense smoke; close all doors, windows and shutters, but not with the key - so that firefighters can get in and out if they have to; make sure your garden hose is connected and put buckets and other receptacles full of water outside; and of course make sure that your car is filled with your most precious belongings and ready to go.

According to a recent study by Nikolaos Zirogiannis for Amherst University in Massachusetts (after the fires in the Peloponnesus in 2007) “as far as human factors are concerned population density was negatively associated with wildfire spread. In addition, the more olive groves were found within the boundaries of a village the less damage the settlement was found to have sustained. Finally, participation of local people in fire abatement efforts was significant in reducing wildfire risk”.

So my conclusion is: all inhabitants of Greece should get an instant course in fighting wildfires; courses should be published online and more simple instructions for wildfire prevention should also be widely published. This way we will not have to depend upon a failing government nor upon a shortage of firefighters.

(With thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2009

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