‘All my fortune was there’: Fires devastate Greek livelihoods and wildlife

Greece has lost 120,000 hectares of land to blazes this year – one of its worst annual tallies and fire season is not over yet.

A gust of wind brought fire over the ridge near the village of Koila and forced firefighters to beat a retreat [John Psaropoulos/Al Jazeera]

Alexandroupolis, Greece – Vagia Arvaniti wept for her livestock as she lifted the corrugated sheet metal that formed their barn to reveal charred bodies.

Her sheep and goats lay in poses of terror, carbon statues of themselves, mouths open, heads lifted as if in a final scream when the wildfire rushed over them. The intense heat had skinned them. One’s intestines were visible on its belly.

Arvaniti is one of thousands of farmers in the neighbourhood of Alexandroupolis hit hard by forest fires that started a week ago.

In addition to dozens of sheep and goats, she lost her 60 chickens, valuable feed stored up for the winter, and a field house where she spent nights delivering newborn sheep.

“Sheep only birth at night, and I have some ewes who are ready to drop,” she said. “I’ve nowhere to stay to help them, and I’ve no shelter for them.”

The fires, thought to have been sparked by a lightning storm, had devastated 72,000 hecatres (178,000 acres) of Western Thrace and East Macedonia, Greece’s northeastern regions as of Thursday and the fires continued to burn on Friday. It is Europe’s largest fire in recent years, according to the European Commission.

Altogether, Greece has lost 120,000 hectares (295,000 acres) to fires this year, one of its worst annual tallies, and fire season is not over yet.

Vagia Arvaniti surveys the ruins of her sheep pens [John Psaropoulos/Al Jazeera]

The government has not yet said how much compensation farmers will receive, but agriculture ministry officials are touring the area before the fires are even out tallying claims.

The government has some fiscal space. Tax revenue for the first seven months was 2.25 billion euros higher than expected. But the announcements may take time, and farmers need cash now to repurchase feed and rebuild stables.

Nikos Grigoriadis, who directs the federation of farmers’ co-operatives in the area, said he is giving out feed on credit to as many members as he can.

“I estimate we have to make available 600,000 to 700,000 euros’ worth of emergency feed to our 3,500 members. Some are proud and will accept nothing on credit. Others simply cannot pay,” he said.

“I don’t think we’re ever going to see this money back, or not for a very long time,” he added.

One of those who cannot pay is Hussein Husseinoglou, a builder from the village of Dikela. He described discovering what was left of his tool and sheep shed on the mountainside.

“My equipment didn’t just burn. It melted. My animals were fused into a ball,” he said. Asked to estimate the cost of his machinery, he said, “I can’t put a number on it. I’ve been working as a builder for 28 years. All my fortune was there.”

The cooperative is not the only source of immediate help. The roads were dotted with pick-up trucks carrying hay and feed as unscathed farmers helped neighbours.

A Bulgarian man who had a house in Dikela donated truckloads of hay for Husseinoglou’s surviving sheep.

Arvaniti’s sheep were burned alive in their shelters [John Psaropoulos/Al Jazeera]

‘People did what they could’

The fire’s destruction seemed arbitrary. One vineyard was singed around the edges but spared. An olive grove bore a line of burned trees. Fire drove a phalanx of destruction through a field, but left two solar photovoltaic installations on either side of it unharmed.

In the Muslim village of Avra, Mustafa Sofu and his brother saved their 650 sheep and goats but saw their alfalfa and barley feed go up in smoke.

“These alfalfa balls go for seven or eight euros apiece, and [my brother] lost three thousand, so the damage is over 20,000 euros’ worth. And the whole barn was burned,” he said. “We expect the government will help us now.”

Sheep shelters and toolsheds seem to have been the main property losses.

A few houses burned in the village of Dikela, but there was remarkably little structural damage overall given the scale of the fires.

In the village of Palagia, near Arvaniti’s farm, the elementary school burned down but no houses were lost.

Locals said that is because they defied evacuation orders to protect their properties.

“The village was ordered to evacuate but all the men stayed to defend their homes. I was here, too,” said plumber Nektarios Mamatzanian, a resident of Palagia.

“People did what they could with their garden hoses, but at some point, the water was cut off.”

Water mains pressure is often provided by electric pumps, but the pumps failed when the fire burned through electricity poles and wires.

“The fire service helped after locals insisted,” said Mamatzanian. Had the village been evacuated as ordered, it might not have survived.

The fire reached the outskirts of Palagia but homeowners defied an evacuation order to defend their properties [John Psaropoulos/Al Jazeera]

Unusual, unprecedented

Alexandroupolis Mayor Yiannis Zampoukis said his evacuation policy saved lives.

“We typically have one or two fires each summer, but such a phenomenon hasn’t existed in Alexandroupoli’s recent history,” Zampoukis told Al Jazeera.

“We had to evacuate 12,000 people between 2am-4am [on Monday] …  and at the same time, we had to evacuate our municipal summer camp and the church’s summer camp, two old people’s homes, and the Alexandroupoli hospital,” he said, clearly proud at the municipality’s swift action.

This was very much the opposite of what happened in Mati, a resort east of Athens, in 2018 when the fire service, municipality and regional administration all failed to evacuate residents squarely in the path of a wind-whipped forest fire.

More than 100 were killed, and the incident has since led authorities to prioritise human life and downplay the preservation of property.

Debate has also raged about how to defend the environment. Fighting a forest blaze is difficult. When the fire reached the village of Koila, for instance, firefighters set up a line of defence on a ridge. For hours, they fought back flames with hoses as villagers helped carry hoses and ferry water to the engines. But a sudden gust of wind overwhelmed them, bringing the fire over the ridge in seconds, darkening the sky with smoke and ash.

The seemingly unbeatable ferocity with which a fire burns a desiccated forest has led many experts to emphasise the importance of fire prevention through cleaning of dead wood, the building of fire breaks and other measures.

“Each year, we hear that fire conditions were something new, unusual or unprecedented. It’s as though we’ve learned nothing from the recent past,” wrote the World Wildlife Fund’s Greek branch.

Firefighters battle a blaze [John Psaropoulos/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera