Greek wildfires devastated land. They also took away livelihoods

On the island of Evia, many who depended on the fire-ravaged forest for their livelihoods are now facing destitution.

Fires raged in many parts of Greece this year as the country was baked by a prolonged heatwave that sent temperatures soaring to 45 degrees Celsius [John Psaropoulos/Al Jazeera]

Evia, Greece – Vangelis Yiorgatzis is destitute.

The pine forest he tapped for resin was burned in the August fires that ravaged the island of Evia and much of Greece. So were his 350 olive trees and his thousand vines.

“We are completely destroyed. Unemployed. Out on the street,” he said.

His only consolation is that his house is still standing, but that, said his wife, Anastasia, is a mixed blessing.

“At first we said, ‘At least we have the house.’ But with each passing day you realise that if your house had burned and you still had your job, you’d rebuild it. But now what?”

After wildfires claimed 100,000 hectares (247,000 acres) of forest and suburbs last month, the Greek government moved quickly to offer home and business owners up to $16,500 as a down payment for a loan to help them rebuild burned properties.

It is offering them $7,000 to buy appliances, and so far it has paid out almost $30m to more than 5,000 beneficiaries.

But it did not initially announce compensation for resin harvesters, beekeepers, shepherds and woodcutters who have lost their means of livelihood.

Yiorgatzis and his wife made about $10,000 a year selling pine resin, which is used to make paint thinner, sealant, glue and varnish.

Vangelis Yiorgatzis, centre, says his family has been ‘destroyed’ by the blazes that gripped Evia earlier this year [John Psaropoulos/Al Jazeera]

They made another $4,000 selling grape must in September and olive oil in December. The fires have robbed them of all three harvests, and they will now spend their remaining savings to support two children in university.

“Most of the profession is 55-60 years old,” said Yiorgatzis, 50, the president of the resin harvesters’ association.

About 800 families were in a similar predicament.

“At this age, our expenses are at the maximum.”

The government has now said it will spend $4.3m to support resin harvesters in an effort to save the local economy.

‘If we go, everyone goes’

The municipality of Limni, where the Yiorgatzis family lives, estimated it has lost three-quarters of a million fruit-bearing trees, mostly olives. Also lost are 3,000 grazing animals and 4,000 beehives.

In the mountainous reaches of northern Evia, this accounts for much of the economy’s foundation.

“Three and a half million euros came into northern Evia each year from resin,” said Yiorgatzis.

“Take this away. Take away shepherds. Take away beekeepers, who bring their hives here from all over Greece because of the good honey that’s produced from pine forest. Take away the tourism. That cuts off all the rest of the local economy – the builders, the shopkeepers, the supermarkets. If we go, everyone goes.”

The municipality of Limni, where the Yiorgatzis family lives, estimates it has lost three-quarters of a million fruit-bearing trees because of the fires [John Psaropoulos/Al Jazeera]

The Greek Green Party agreed. The fires have galvanised it into mounting a campaign to enter parliament in the next general election.

“Forest professions and knowledge … are in danger of going extinct without tailored and comprehensive rescue plans that leave no one behind,” the party recently stated after a tour of Evia.

Trust betrayed

Trust towards the government is in short supply because of what some Greeks said was a minimal effort made to put out the fire on Evia, which was simultaneous with an inferno in the exclusive Athens suburb of Varibobi.

“The complaint that everybody has here is that there wasn’t any help at all, because there was this fire in Varybobi near the capital, and there were important people living in those houses, big houses, and all the protection from aeroplanes was concentrated there,” said publisher Denise Harvey, who lives in Limni.

Joanna Sherrard watched the fire burn for two days before any aerial response arrived.

“We saw the first smoke and watched the fire as it went down the coast,” said Sherrard.

“There were no firefighting planes at all … at sunset time [on the first day] they sent two spotter planes. That was it.”

Sherrard said the Greek government was slow to react to the fires on Evia [John Psaropoulos/Al Jazeera] (Al Jazeera)

The government advised people to evacuate to avoid a repeat of the July 2018 tragedy, when a wildfire swept through the seaside town of Mati, east of Athens, killing 103 people.

That blaze remains Europe’s deadliest fire and the failure to evacuate was the subject of a sweeping judicial inquiry.

“Most people stayed behind to protect their houses,” said Harvey. “They were asked to evacuate. They did initially, and then they said, ‘No, we’re not going to evacuate,’ and they crept back on the back roads.”

One of those people was Yiorgatzis. Together with a handful of other men from his village of Skepasti, he drove around the village perimeter with pesticide-spraying equipment, putting out fires as they started.

“There was flaming debris raining down on the village. Some of it from one kilometre away,” he said. “As soon as we saw a fire, we put it out immediately.”

“Those of us who stayed in our villages and defended our homes with spraying equipment saved them,” said Yiorgatzis. “Those who were persuaded to evacuate out of fear were burned out.”

‘There was no help’

Skepasti was saved, but the surrounding land that forms the basis of its livelihood is gone.

For now, destitute tradespeople are living off donations. Grassroots groups and professional associations from all over Greece have sent food, clothing and school supplies to a roadside depot near the village of Strofilia, in the heart of the burned area.

Volunteers gather there to sort through the goods. As they ate a lunch of canned broad beans, feta, stuffed vine leaves and local wine, their anger was palpable.

“We have demands, because this damage is the government’s fault, it’s not climate change’s fault or the weather’s fault,” said resin harvester Babis Tsivigas. “They abandoned us. We were burning for nine days and there was no help.”

Tsivigas (right) accused officials of abandoning those affected by the blazes [John Psaropoulos/Al Jazeera]

Tsivigas, 38, has no idea how he will now support his wife and two sons, aged two and four.

“We want compensation for everything – olive trees, compensation for this year’s resin crop at last year’s rates, retirement for men at 55 and women at 50, because this profession is finished.”

The government has agreed to some of the resin harvesters’ demands. It will employ them for up to three years, alongside woodcutters, to cut down deadwood and create terracing on the forest floor, to prevent soil erosion before the November rains arrive.

“This area gets a lot of rain and bad weather, 1200-1800mm a year – at least three times the rainfall in Athens,” said Babis’s brother, Thanasis. If topsoil washes away, the forest might never recover.

It will also spend $82m hiring them for seven years to curate the forest.

“The Aleppo Pine grows back right after it burns, because the seeds are released. There will be millions,” says Yiorgatzis. “We have to cull some and leave the stronger trees standing, so as to have a better forest in 15 years. If we don’t do that … the trees will be in competition and they will weaken each other.”

The government might have faced a violent reaction if it had done otherwise. Asked what would happen if contractors had brought in outside workers, Thanasis Tsivigas was categorical. “We will do everything in our power not to let them.”

Source: Al Jazeera