‘Our village is dead’: The devastating toll of Greece’s wildfires
Villages evacuated, thousands made homeless and livelihoods destroyed in an instant as blazes continue to unsettle the nation.
Evia, Greece – “We owe everything to our neighbours. They saved our houses,” said Dimitra, who lives on Evia, the Greek island that is still being ravaged by wildfires and where locals are fleeing the chaos by sea.
“We had no aerial support as they focused on the other fires,” she told Al Jazeera, referring to the recent blazes in Athens and Olympia.
In Evia, Greece’s second-largest island and home to the biggest fire front, postcard-perfect scenes have been replaced by scorched land as fires, which started a week ago, spread and engulfed almost the entire north of the island.
While Dimitra’s home in the tourist resort was saved, others were not so lucky.
“Our main income comes from tourism and now our village is dead. Who wants to have their vacations on a scorched ground?” she said.
Entire villages on the island’s north have been evacuated, thousands have fled and large sections of forest are destroyed – here and elsewhere in the country.
At the time of writing, across Greece, wildfires have burned more than 263,000 hectares (650,000 acres) of land – in Evia, Athens and Lakonia, according to the Copernicus Environmental Satellite Sentinel-2.
Farms and livestock have vanished in an instant as several fronts gather pace, feeding on dense pine forests.
To find safe ground, Evia locals have escaped on ferries and the private and fishing boats that came to help rescue efforts.
The fires, described as nightmarish and apocalyptic, have also killed at least one person and hospitalised many more.
Vasilis Filoras, a 38-year-old drone operator and volunteer firefighter, was hit by a falling electricity pole in northern Athens and suffered a fatal head injury.
The fires come as Greece witnesses one of the worst heat waves on record, with temperatures as high as 47C (117F) lasting for more than a week.
On Tuesday, most of Greece was put on alert.
By Friday, a sixth part of central Greece, Evia island and almost the entire Peloponnese region in the country’s south, were in a state of High Fire Alert, the top of the scale, and remained as such until Sunday.
“Humidity levels were extremely low and the temperatures were very high, so the combustible material was there and ready for ignition – a combination of factors that lead to the fire spreading fast,” Kimon Pantelides, head of the Volunteer Fire and Rescue Team of Ekali, a group of volunteer firefighters who operate in northern Athens, told Al Jazeera.
At one point, “the fire was almost 30 metres away from us”, said Pantelides, “and all of a sudden the tip of the flame flew three meters above our vehicle. We had to duck, turn the self-protection water spray on and wait until it abated. There is significant damage on the vehicle.”
Pantelides’ team received a first call for help on Tuesday afternoon, “with reports of continuous explosions” near Tatoi Palace, said Pantelides, referring to the estate of the former Greek royal family, some 30km (18.6 miles) from central Athens.
This then set off what would become a devastating wildfire in Varympompi, a north Athens suburb.
“It swallowed the trees next to our residence in less than 20 minutes,” said a Varympompi resident. “The flames seemed like live tongues and the fire brigade couldn’t act on it because they had no water left.”
Less than a kilometre away at the Varympompi Horse Riding School, staff and owners evacuated horses, some of which were are already wounded, from the site.
Next to the coaches carrying the horses, a dog lay lifeless on the charred ground.
“Our group saved more than 50 animals, pets and wild ones,” said Alexis Mantzoros, a member of Anima Libre Hellenic Animal Rescue, a volunteer team.
“The saddening image of animals being abandoned inside the yards while still on a leash is a cry for help. Some people fled and left their animals to die. There is a need for adoption right now as most of the rescued animals need a home, otherwise, they must return to their natural environment which is gone and destroyed,” said Christina Pappi, a volunteer with the same team.
In a speech delivered on public television on Thursday, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, said Greece faced “unprecedented conditions” as the days-long heatwave turned the country “into a powder keg”, adding: “We owe it to ourselves to shield our country from the reality of climate change”.
But as outrage and frustration start to rise, some locals have a different opinion.
“He is talking about climate change and he forgets about the arsonists being arrested,” said a resident of Kourkouloi village, northern Evia, who wished to remain anonymous.
Over the past few days, several people have been suspected of starting fires deliberately, the motive for which remains unclear.
“There is surely a plan which I cannot understand, but who on Earth wants to destroy what nature gave to us? We are angry, devastated and disgusted and the officials and the media are to blame. Start telling the truth!” he shouted at this reporter, as he entered his car to drive to the front line to provide help.
As the tragedy unravels, anger is brewing over the government’s plan and alleged failure to solve the issue.
Hundreds of people have announced on Twitter that they will refuse government orders to evacuate in order to save their land and properties.
“We have a great problem with fire management because we do not pay attention to the phenomenon threatening us. There is a tendency in Europe to militarise fire management, increasing the policing part of civil protection against the scientific part,” warned Miltiadis Athanasiou, who has a PhD in wildfire management.
“There is a need for training for all citizens. Everything starts from everyone’s house … If we create a fire resilient settlement and properly inform the citizens, then the firefighter will not have to protect your home and they will focus on the forest fire.”
On Monday, officials started to count the cost of the fires and discuss relief efforts, while some blazed continued to burn on Evia and in Lakonia. Small pockets of fire were being controlled in northern Athens. And while temperatures have eased, forecasts suggest they could rise again this week.