ATHENS – After the sorry and compassion for the victims of the Greek Wildfires, with 85 dead and dozens missing, signs are emerging that the government had no disaster or evacuation plan and that the seaside village of Mati, where most died, was a death trap of poor urban design.
While the ruling Radical Left SYRIZA-led coalition continued to insist the devastation couldn’t have been prevented because of the speed and ferocity of the fire that officials said seemed to be deliberately set at multiple points, a report by a University of Athens team blamed officials.
The report said that the conflagration was a “characteristic example of a fire in a mixed zone of forest and settlements which has the highest probability of human losses in Greece and globally,” echoing similar findings after deadly floods in Mandra west of Athens last year were caused primarily by overbuilding and unlawful damming of gullies with the government looking the other way.
The report by the team – which was led by Efthymios Lekkas, Professor of Dynamic Tectonics and applied geology – also said that there are many such areas in Greece, Kathimerini reported, adding that the loss of so many lives in an acre of 1,300 hectares (3,212 acres) was the worst in modern European history.
The deadly fire in Ilia, southern Greece, in 2007 was 100 times bigger, according to Lekkas, while the fires in Portugal last year, which left 66 dead, burnt an area of 45,000 hectares, some 111,197 acres.
The area around Mount Pendeli, which burned extensively in 2007 and was replanted with trees by volunteers, was considered a high-risk zone and authorities were said to be aware of the dangers but ignored them and didn’t have preventive measures in place.
The University of Athens report also said that the strong winds were responsible for the speed at which the fires in seaside areas, especially Mati, spread, leaving victims little time to flee and finding themselves in narrow, dead-end rabbit warren of streets with no outlets.
Nikos Michalopoulos, the Director of the bservatory’s Institute of Environment and Sustainable Development, told Kathimerini the Attica Regional Authority has started talks with the relevant state institutions to set up an early warning system for natural disasters.
“The technical tools exist,” he said, adding that the issue of financing and who manages the data must be resolved. He said people near the coast were informed fire by evacuees from the Mati resort and not by any warning system.
Greek authorities said there were serious indications that the fire that gutted Mati was started deliberately, while experts warned that the devastated coastal town had been built like a “fire trap,” with poor safety standards and few escape routes.
Public Order Minister Nikos Toskas said satellite image analysis of the deadly fire and a second blaze that broke out on the other side of the city indicated both had been set in multiple places within a short time frame.
“We have serious indications and significant findings of criminal activity concerning arson,” Toskas said. “We are troubled by many factors, and there have been physical findings that are the subject of an investigation,” but wouldn’t provide more details.
The scientific team said the layout of the resort had acted like a “fire trap” with access to the sea hampered by cliffs, and homes built in wooded areas with little provision for fire safety.
The study also noted that the resort had narrow roads, numerous dead-ends, and was poorly sign-posted, meaning visitors could not easily reach a nearby main road.
At a morgue in Athens where identification efforts were centered, relatives were informed about the steps needed to match the bodies held there to a missing person, including providing DNA samples and dental records.
“The procedure is difficult, harder than that of other mass disasters which we have dealt with in the past as a forensics department,” coroner Nikolaos Kalogrias said. “Here, the main cause of death was burning, in most cases the complete burning (of the body), so identification is very difficult.”
Thanassis Moraitis went to the morgue searching for his 90-year-old mother.
He had tried to drive away with his mother, wife and 19-year-old son, but the fire was moving too fast. They had to abandon the car and started running to the beach and into the water. Moraitis suffered burns to his leg from the extreme heat; his mother didn’t make it.
“In the sea, there was a rain of fire, there was smoke, there was a Force 12 wind,” the 53-year-old Moraitis said, adding that boats rescued him, his wife and son after about three hours. “I didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye to my mother.”
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)