When the Fire Comes
Wildfires break out every summer across Greece. The mountains surrounding Athens have burned on more than one occasion this year. It was just columns of smoke in the distance. It wasn’t news, until it was. When I woke up on Tuesday morning there were 50 dead. Then 60. It would be 74 by the end of the day. Now it’s closer to 80 and likely to go higher.
Greece doesn’t have a land registry. We don’t really know who owns what. So if a forest burns down and you build on the land, you can claim it. And if you’re a developer with political connections, retrospective planning permission is pretty much guaranteed. There have been 4000 arrests for arson since 2014. Of those, only 700 people were put on trial, of whom only one served a prison sentence. Five people have been arrested in connection with the recent fires.
Mati (the name means ‘eye’ in Greek) was once a forest. Starting in the 1950s, the area was gradually and illegally developed, with no planning, no proper licensing, no supervision. Successive governments (including the current one) rewarded arson and landgrabs by allowing the culprits to hold on to the spoils. But the people living there now are unlikely to be aware of all this.
So they are naturally asking: where is the state? Where is the infrastructure? And here we find crime number two: a decade of austerity has drastically reduced the Greek fire service; firefighters often work on seasonal contracts, and in some cases their budget is so stretched they have to buy their own boots. Combined with what appears to have been a severe lack of co-ordination between the various services in the first few crucial hours, the cuts have cost lives.
Vital infrastructure work that should have been carried out before the summer hasn’t been. Everyone had ‘other problems’, such as making sure they could put food on their table.
In the streets of Mati you can see aluminium car parts melted on the tarmac. Aluminium melts at around 650ºC. Fire hoses don’t really help against such temperatures. The fires go out when they meet the sea or run out of things to burn.
A dry month, high temperatures, and gale force winds carrying an inferno through the town faster than a person can run. Still, it was just thirty metres from some of the houses where people died to the sea, where many of their neighbours had already sought shelter. What happened?
Unregulated development has led to lots of alleys that stop in dead ends, narrow streets and no solid evacuation plan that people could follow. Access to the beach is very often cut off too, to keep parts of it ‘private’ for wealthier residents. Locals have said that in some cases you might need to walk miles to find access to the shore. Twenty-six people were found dead in a field, huddled together, having failed to find a passage through the fences to the shore. Inequality was among the factors that killed them.
We will see more fires like these. Climate change is making the dry season drier, in Greece and elsewhere. We’re not taking it seriously enough, because we have ‘other problems’. Life is too hard to think about stuff like this. And it’s true, it is. But we should also be asking ourselves: when the fire comes, where will we go?