NEW YORK – Ambassador Patrick Theros served in the U.S. foreign service for 36 years. He was U.S. Ambassador to Qatar and also directed the State Department’s Counterterrorism Office, He currently represents the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem in the United States. Amb. Theros is also a frequent contributor to The National Herald and sent us the following report on the wildfires in Greece:
I spoke to a retired senior Hellenic Navy officer who knows meteorology. He said that high winds had been predicted and that anyone with knowledge of meteorology would have known how a fire would have developed. He said that the way the fires started was “suspicious.”
High westerly winds had been predicted Winds over Mt. Pendelis, which is not often the case. In hot weather such winds would climb the western slope, go over the ridge line and then drop over the eastern slope at much higher speed. The first fire started in Kineta SW of Athens which had predicted southerly winds. It drew the firefighting services west of the city.
Forty five minutes later fires started on the eastern slope of Pendelis and went out of control immediately. It takes, he said, about 30 – 45 minutes to drive from the place where the Kineta fires started to where the Pendelis fires began. In the past, they had caught people they believed working for Turkey who set fires. He has no proof but, if he is right, he suspects that it may have been Russians “teaching Greece a lesson” for expelling diplomats.
Once the fire started and given the weather and winds it was impossible to stop them. It was the perfect storm. High winds and high heat would pick up burning embers such as pine cones and carry them for long distances starting new fires in unpredictable places kilometers away.
The winds caused waves so rough that firefighting planes could not pick up water from the sea. They would have to land at airports where taking on water is not as fast. Then the smoke closed Athens International forcing the planes to go further away to less well-equipped airports.
The smoke complicated aerial firefighting further by obscuring the targets. The winds and thermal updrafts made it very difficult for the helicopters to operate and forced the seaplanes to drop water less accurately. He described the firefighting services as “heroic” and “very well-trained” but that this was a fire beyond the control of any counter-measures. No firefighting service could have done any better, he said.
The extreme heat and smoke probably caused most of the casualties to die long before the fires burned them, he said. Even jumping into the water did not save people unless they could get further away from shore. Otherwise, the fire sucked off the oxygen over the water and the winds made swimming difficult. The high winds complicated efforts to get people out of the threatened zones because the fire could have gone in any direction.
The problem is the same as California where people build homes in the middle of fire-prone woods in mountainous areas that complicate evacuation.
On a more human level, a taxi driver told us yesterday that on Monday night he took a married couple towards Nea Makri. They had lost contact with their two children, 11 and 13, who had been left with their grandparents near Nea Makri. He got them as far as two kilometers from the town when the police stopped them. The parents got out of the taxi and started up the road on foot, disappearing into the smoke. He does not know what happened to them.