When the Fire Comes

Yiannis Baboulias

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?


  • 27 July 2018 at 11:36am
    Kathryn Dunathan says:
    There is a land registry, but it is incomplete, way behind schedule in meeting the requirements of the EU to provide a modern land registry that is useful. It has taken 20 years or so to get this. It may take 20 more.

    • 3 August 2018 at 10:34am
      Linda Pap says: @ Kathryn Dunathan
      You are quite right. There is a land registry. But don't forget those undertaking that task have to wade through over a hundred years of neglect, corrupton and simply not abiding by any rules. But it is not just the existence or non-existence of registry, it is the existence of greed and corruption.The municipal governments of these towns should immedialtely be investigated for allowing buildings, gates, and other illegal structures to be built with no overall town plan,no legal permits for building and just looking th other way while their hands were outstretched with palms up. Criminal charges should be made where appropriate and sufficient evidence can be found. Furthermore, the national government should begin a thorough investigation of all land especially that used for farming and homebulding. Municipal government to Nomos to national: start and don't drag your feet as you usually do. Greece has got the technology, the educated citizenship--now all it needs is the backbone to get it done, no matter whose head rolls.

  • 27 July 2018 at 8:46pm
    Stu Bry says:
    What has been done to Greece is an outrage.

    "In this short report, we present the last 14-year trends (2001 to 2014) of births and deaths in Greece (Table). Over the six years of the crisis (2009 – 2014), the crude birth rate substantially decreased between 2009 and 2014; from 10.45 per 1,000 population in 2009 to 8.57 in 2014 (Table). The 93,429 livebirths in 2014 is the lowest number recorded in Greece since 1955 (the first year for which reliable data are available). During the same period (2009 – 2014), the crude mortality rate in Greece increased, from 9.60 per 1,000 population in 2009 to 10.46 in 2014 (Table). In 2012 and 2014, there were 116,670 and deaths 114,088 respectively, the highest numbers since 1948. The result of these two opposing trends was an excess of 59,285 more deaths than births over the last four years (2010 – 2014)"

    A entire nation has been collectively punished because EU leaders sided with banks over people.

    • 1 August 2018 at 7:06am
      Dectora says: @ Stu Bry
      I couldn't agree more. Austerity was forced on the Greek people rather than much needed structural reform, including a full land registry.

  • 31 July 2018 at 5:28pm
    Olivier says:
    The EU is not responsible for the corruption of Greece and its third-world aberrations like the lack of a land registry.

    • 1 August 2018 at 7:07am
      Dectora says: @ Olivier
      It bloody well is, in accepting Greece as a member, despite being fully aware of these problems.

    • 2 August 2018 at 1:12pm
      XopherO says: @ Dectora
      Merkel and Junker acted to protect German and Luxembourg banks which were already charging excessive interest rates for loans to Greece. I thought the whole point of a high interest rate is because the loan is considered more risky. Well, the banks had their cake (high income, robbing the Greeks) and ate it (were protected when the risk materialised and defaults looked certain.) The IMF suggested writing off some of the debt, but Junker and Merkel were having none of it. If there was any reason for me to vote Leave, it was those two, but I voted Remain because leaving is folly and only in the interest of the very rich, if anyone. And indeed there is corruption in Greece, but so there is in the UK, probably more, it is just better covered up. Not paying due taxes is common to both countries. If the UK imposed stiffer regulations there would have been no recession. As John Cleese (not my favourite guy) said on Today, with some justification, the UK is one of the most corrupt countries, and has some of the worst press, mentioning (the filthy mouthed) Dacre who is of course a good friend of John Humphries, the lead presenter (and Cleese probably knew this as he said it) It is the filthy rich (and those that protect them, like Tory and Blairite Labour governments)in both countries who are responsible for most of the problems, one way or the other. So let us put blame where it is due.

    • 5 August 2018 at 1:15pm
      Tanvyeboyo says: @ Dectora
      EU also 'accepted' Spain and Portugal and there will be other success stories in the East. Big mistake was accepting UK who only ever thought of trashing the project. Soon gone and good riddance.
      Like other countries, Greece had just emerged from NATO-supported Colonels's regime which only fell because of their support for the attempted coup in Nicosia which opened the door to that other NATO member Turkey. Greece will stick the course and they have a lot of catching up to do after . EU is their best chance to be anchored in Europe after centuries of underdevelopment, missing the Renaissance, caporalisme and even Civil War (1946-49) with UK involvement.

    • 6 August 2018 at 5:50pm
      deadsparrow says: @ Tanvyeboyo
      Spoken like a true European and a good indicator of why the EU will never succeed. At the top, though it may be held together for a while by the sheer greed of its officials and the grotesque amount of spoil to be had at the bottom, there are still those hordes of petty Greek/Turk/French/German/British/Italian haters who would rather go hungry than share a meal.

    • 7 August 2018 at 10:50am
      XopherO says: @ deadsparrow
      For a moment I thought deadsparrow was describing the UK and the mega-troughing at the top and its xenophobia until I saw 'British' included! I now live in France and I have not met many of those 'haters', but I have in the UK. My wife is French and hardly a day went by when someone didn't say something offensive about France or the French to her face. I have not had any offensive remarks directed at me, only kind ones.

      Well you can have your xenophobic Brexit, see the pound collapse, unemployment rise, get ripped off in trade deals because the UK does not have experienced trade negotiators, and other countries will see the desperation (Trump will!) watch our supposed sovereignty diluted in the process. And of course watch those at the top (Old Etonians etc)troughing on the UKs difficulties by exploiting it in the money markets.

      Actually, the EU seems quite strong at the moment - most countries have higher growth rates than the UK (and it is declining). And it will weather Brexit better than the UK because the lost trade will be spread over the 27, but the UK will have to take the whole hit. The UKs poor productivity - just about the worst in western Europe - will be exposed to the harsh reality of trading alone. Good luck deadsparrow - oh, but you are already dead anyway.

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