I See Fire – Account of a National Tragedy

I was swimming when I first heard about the fires. I had decided to capitalize on a free weekend, and took a ferry to enjoy the islands my country was so famed for. Swimming past a middle-aged couple paddling somberly, I caught some snippets of their conversation detailing the beginnings of a wildfire in Attica, close to Athens. I frowned. As horrible as it sounds, Greece struggles with small scale wildfires every year and despite the obviously detrimental effects on the habitats and landscapes destroyed, it has become commonplace enough that most Greeks have become numb to the news. I would look it up later just in case, but for now, I might as well enjoy the beach. It was a windy day and everyone around me was taking advantage of the waves. There wasn’t much I could do from here anyway.

“Do you smell that?” my friend would ask me later. “It smells like something’s burning.”

I shrugged: “It’s probably a burnt tire or something”. Any connection at the time was inconceivable. How large would a fire have to be for me to smell the ashes of a place more than 3 hours away by boat?

I got back to my room at 7 pm and turned on the TV to pandemonium. After the wildfire that had started in Kineta, a small town about an hour drive from Athens, another one had started in Penteli, a mountainous Athenian suburb at around 5 pm. While I had been enjoying the waves and the cool winds, the same winds had fed the fires into an unrestrainable, raging beast whose speed, volume and direction was ill-matched to human reaction time and fire fighting capabilities. Nobody knew what was happening and how to react. People were in shock, rooted to the spot filming the flames that sped towards them and engulfed them, turning their evidence to ashes. First responders were seen circling the scene and trying to decide the best course of actions with limited resources and little to no time. Political leaders and the heads of the first response units met to discuss and distribute resources. Reporters were broadcasting live from the scene and subsequently fleeing, as flames that were on the top of the mountain reached them within five minutes.

I sat in numb amazement until the digital numbers on the clock by my bedside went from 7:03-7:05, a two minute pause that, had I been there would have killed me.I grabbed my phone, and frantically called every new place the fire spread, speaking to friends and family that lived in completely different neighborhoods.

The fires had spread to the popular beachfront neighborhoods of Rafina and Nea Makri.  Anyone could have gone there for a day trip to enjoy the beach and with the way the flames were spreading, I didn’t know what neighborhoodwas next. By 9 o’ clock that night, the flames had reached Mati, a beautiful, sea side area filled with residential houses. Residential houses built on freelance construction with absolutely no infrastructure or regulation for a fire such as this one. One of these houses belonged to my cousins, a house I frequently visited. My hands started shaking and my calls became more frantic.

“They’ve left.” My dad told me when he finally answered the phone. “They’re not home but at this rate I don’t think there’s a home left. Listen, I’ll call you later there’s a lot going on right now.”

The night progressed and the flames eventually died, though their image would fill our televisions for much longer. Bit by bit, the damage that had occurred began to be revealed. Absolutely charred neighborhoods, blackened houses filled with nothing but ashes -Ashes that were sometimes human. Lines of burnt cars remained in queue on the roads, as if in desperate race from the fires that had evidently reached them before their drivers could escape. Sobbing people, harrowed first responders and a slow trickle of names, the names of the dead and those that were still missing or unrecognizably burnt.

In the next days the stories became more personal. Children that had been burnt alive hauntedd news outlets everywhere. 52 fleeing people found themselves trapped between a forest and a cliff. Half managed to escape down a small path before the flames caught them, but the rest were trapped. One desperate woman jumped off the cliff to the depths below right before the fire hit.

“It was quiet.” A man who escaped told me numbly:

“There was the sound of the flames punctured only by the sounds of car engines exploding and the sound of things burning…. that’s all there was.”

“Yes, that girl. Her mother….” a friend tells me later that night, “And you know what the worst part is? Her house was unscathed! She saw the fire going that way and ran but the wind was taking the fire everywhere.  You couldn’t predict it….if she had just stayed home…”

The overwhelming scope of the tragedy sat on my chest like a weight I couldn’t shake. An unexplainable feeling of guilt settled over me. I was desperate to do something, to stop the misery, suffering and destruction somehow in someway. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who felt that way:

“There are no more spots to give blood today. We’re absolutely full you’ll have to come back on Monday.” A harried nurse told me while simultaneously answering five other questions aimed at her from other directions.

“But that’s nearly a week from now!”

“There’s nothing more I can do! You can try another hospital though I’m quite sure they’re facing the same thing.” Her voice grew soft:

“We’ll still need it on Monday dear.” Hundreds were still missing and there were many more in critical condition. The death count had then reached into the eighties. .

It was the same with supplies. “We can’t take them now;”one of the NGO volunteers called over her shoulder as she carried supplies from one corner of the room to the other:
“Our stocks are full. There’s been an outpour please don’t give us anymore useless things we have more than enough food!”

By the 25th outcry, information and theories began to emerge. The fire had started at three different points at different times on the same day. Some news outlets reported that 12 hot plates had been positioned at Kineta’s starting point while others reported kindle burning as the root cause in Penteli. The minister of internal Affairs labelled the origins of the fires suspicious and ideas pointing to different perpetrators and detailing different conspiracy theories began circling on social media:

Posts like these began to flood my newsfeed with outcries and debates filling every available platform. “We all know that the neighborhoods that were burnt are prime real estate areas!” said another one in all caps: “don’t be surprised when a complex is built there soon!”

Others began examining and attacking the inefficiency with which the fires were dealt with. No call for evacuation was ever issued in Mati. According to most news outlets: “no major call for evacuation by those responsible was issued at all.”  The only people who carried out a standard evacuation where the summer camps based in the areas affected. They were trained for this situation extensively and wary of the children’s lives in their hands.

The other citizens did not have the same level of preparedness. In fact, a large portion of the inhabitants of the region  lived in a neighborhood made up entirely of independent, freelance, illegal construction. The houses were built close together, with vegetation in the middle and no protection, safeguards or regulations in the event of a fire.

“The fault lies with whoever built these illegal properties” the minister of defense snaps back to the jeers of an angry crowd in one of the affected areas.

“Who gave them that right? Who let those houses be built that way?” The crowd shouts back.

When I finally visit the site, the rows of blackened trees blur together. The remains of houses stand empty and my cousins’ charred car remains in its parking spot. I walk around it and feel sick all over again.

By now the death count has reached 96 people. The list of missing people has been exhausted but to get a comprehensive list of the victims you need to visit local police officers. News outlets continue to disagree on information concerning the events, scope, blame of the wildfires. The events have already been politicized, as opposition powers use the mismanagement of the crisis to criticize the incumbent government.

At the same time, there’s a more pragmatic, positive outcry. University students flood social media with petitions and solutions. “Pass harsher legislation for arsonists!”, one reads.

“Make the burnt area into protected forest territory!” reads another from Change.org.

Time passes, life goes on, a vigil is held, and people cry but slowly life begins to fall back into place. People go back on vacation and continue to enjoy the best our country has to offer. Yet for those who have lost everything, time is still at  a standstill.

“The shock hasn’t worn off yet.” A local volunteer says as she heaves supplies and winter blankets into boxes for all those who were now homeless.

“I think we’re all still in shock but it will become better with time. We’re all here to rebuild our homes. It seems impossible, but we have to improve. Life will go on, it’s what it does, and we will go on with it.”

Her words conjure up the image of a phoenix in my mind’s eye, born from the ashes, fierce and resilient.  Despite it all I smile, and the weight in my chest lightens just a little.