Little prepared any of us on the Athens-bound flight for the sight of the large fire-induced clouds that swept over both sides of the plane as it descended on Friday.
News of the extreme heat engulfing Greece had spread beyond its borders all week, packaged in increasingly desperate language. Temperatures broke records few had imagined. If Monday was bad, Tuesday was worse. In some parts of the country, the mercury had reached 47 ° C (117 ° F), with thermal cameras on drones recording the ground temperature in central Athens at 55 ° C.
On Wednesday, we heard that entire tracts of suburban forest in the Greek capital the northern fringes had caught fire. Hells that apparently smelled like Dante’s hell had incinerated everything in their path; friends had lost their homes; Thousands had been evacuated with residents and tourists fleeing the devastated areas by all possible means. The terraces, an Athenian respite from the scorching heat, had been transformed into ash-laden forbidden zones.
“It has been crazy here. Between the extreme heat and the wildfires, it feels apocalyptic, ”Eleni Myrivili, a friend recently appointed to the position of First Heat Officer of Athens, wrote in an email as the army deployed to assist firefighters. “Ash is raining down on us here in Athens.”
From the sky, it was terribly clear that the city was under siege, caught in a cycle of unbearable heat that fueled conflagrations in a terrain so parched it was about to catch fire at any moment.
Fires, some large, some small, some extinguished and then reignited, were raging across the country, the country’s civil protection chief Nikos Hardalias told reporters. Conditions were not only “extremely dangerous” but unprecedented, he said, estimating that firefighters trying to protect populated areas, electrical installations and historic sites had fought 154 wildfires during the week. More than 60 conflagrations continued to occur on Saturday.
“In recent days we have faced an unprecedented situation in our country, in the intensity and wide distribution of forest fires, and new outbreaks everywhere. [Greece], “he said.” I want to assure you that all available forces are participating in the fight. “
Under skies of acrid smoke, so thick that authorities urged residents to wear masks outdoors and close the windows of their homes, other nations, including the United Kingdom, have stepped up to help this weekend, sending bomber planes. of water, fire brigade and vehicles to Athens.
Although temperatures had dropped after 11 days of exceeding 40 ° C, winds also increased on Friday, stoking new flash points in and around the city.
By Saturday, a large fire that swept through forests and houses into Lake Marathon, the city’s main reservoir, was making its way up the slopes of Mount Parnitha, circling a national park considered the last substantial “green lung” of Athens and sending even more. suffocating smoke. across the Attica basin.
On Evia, the island east of the capital, where fires have also raged from west to north through rugged forests, dramatic scenes unfolded as ferries, tour boats and fishermen rushed to evacuate more than 1,000 people from villages. coastal and beaches. Men and women could be seen clutching babies and carrying the elderly and vulnerable in chairs as they boarded the boats to safety.
Further south, in the Peloponnese, emergency services fought for the fifth day in a row to contain the fires that have destroyed much of Ilia and Messinia and threatened ancient Olympia, where the Olympic flame is lit every four years.
Aware of the enormous loss of life due to the fires that swept through the Mati resort in the summer of 2018, the Greek government has prioritized evacuations.
So far two deaths related to the latest fires have been reported: one victim was a volunteer firefighter and the other Konstantinos Michalos, the head of the British-educated Athens Chamber of Commerce and Industry, who was found dead after running to his factory as a devastating forest fire advanced on Kryoneri, a suburb in the northeast of Athens.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said climate change is clearly to blame for the temperatures that “have turned the country into a powder keg” and sparked hells described as the worst in decades in neighboring Turkey and Italy.
Athens is the hottest metropolis in continental Europe, and meteorologists predict that annual average temperatures across the Mediterranean will rise by as much as 2 ° C over the next 30 years.
But amid the darkness caused by nature gone wrong, extraordinary stories of courage also emerged last week.
Faced with the prospect that his home in Thrakomakedones, in the foothills of Mount Parnitha, would be razed to the ground at 3am on Saturday, Alexandros Rizos decided to stay and “defend” the property. His wife and son were safely evacuated, the 55-year-old business development consultant stood on the roof of the two-story building, watering his garden and the tops of the pine trees in anticipation of the fire approaching.
“I am very attached to this house,” said Rizos, an avid marathon runner, recounting the drama, which took place after four sleepless nights. “I hid when the order to evacuate came and when the fire came, it came like a typhoon, raining gold everywhere. I was there, alone and very scared but I had also taken all the measures. He had cleaned the garden, removed the cones. The typhoon lasted about four minutes, but the grass outside and the treetops were wet enough for the fire to pass through. “
The appearance of the firefighters minutes later and their own heroic efforts saved the entire neighborhood from being reduced to ashes.
Like many, Rizos believes the climate emergency will only get worse. “We are ecologists, we love nature in my family and we want to protect the environment, not install air conditioners that destroy it. But with temperatures of 45 ° C, that is going to be difficult. We have to adapt. Of course, I will replace the pine trees with other trees that don’t burn so easily. “
Myrivili fears the effects of the destruction of so many forests around Athens. Mount Parnitha is a center of biodiversity and is home to some of the richest species of flora and fauna in Europe.
“These mountains around Athens are our life support,” he said, describing the challenge of mitigating the heat as the battle of all the battles that Greece now faces. “We have taken a big step backwards. A vital part of our green infrastructure is gone. With all these trees that are no longer there, we will face new climatic conditions and we will have higher temperatures and probable floods in the metropolitan area of Athens in the coming years. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism