ΑΤΗΕΝS — After nine days of runaway wildfires nearly cut in half Greece's second-largest island, Evia – some 1,422 square miles – the aftermath of burned pine forests and destroyed homes and businesses has many there furious with what they said was an inadequate response.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said his New Democracy government will look into the strategy to deal with wildfires – some 586 at one point – and that the country's arsenal of firefighters and equipment wasn't enough to handle it.
Greece called in help from 22 countries but furious residents on Evia, who lost their livelihoods in making money, resin, olive oil and other commodities said the reserves should have been brought in earlier, including more water dumping aircraft.
The island was full of pristine hillside forests that were part of the lure for tourists who have stayed away after the images of Evia burning went around the world as a symbol of what climate change has wrought.
The government said the fires, during the COVID-19 pandemic, were caused by a brutal heatwave that made trees instant kindling and arson, while critics said it was also because of uncleared brush and unlawful dumping.
Residents of the seaside village of Rovies returned home after fleeing to find their homes burned and the surrounding greenery now charred, with the tourist sector losing visitors for a second year, after COVID shut down 2020 for them.
Rovies, noted the news agency Reuters in a feature on what happened there, is a village on the seaside but also at the foothills of mountains where trees turned into a sea of flames burning down the side.
Wildfires turned the forest and beehives into ashes and burned down about a dozen houses in Rovies, those on the outskirts, and dozens more across the island, the report said.
One belonged to 72-year-old Costas Constantinidis, a former pastry cook who told the news agency that, “There was a paradise here and now… it’s hell,” in tears as he stood in front of his house, much of which was destroyed by flames.
“My wife and I worked hard for many years to build this so we could enjoy it in our old age, and now, we must start again from the beginning,” he lamented.
Residents there and other villages on the island said the government didn't react fast enough although Mitsotakis said the scope and scale of fires everywhere was too much to cope with.
While the fires destroyed huge swathes of territory in Greece, there was one fatality, a 39-year-old volunteer firefighter hit by a falling pole, the toll far less than the 102 killed in July 23, 2018 wildfires.
Those nearly destroyed the seaside village of Mati northeast of Athens and the death count was blamed on the then-ruling Radical Left SYRIZA which didn't have a disaster response plan, and prosecutions are still pending against officials and fire brigade leaders.
In Rovies, residents said they felt abandoned although hundreds of firefighters had been deployed and ferries came to rescue hundreds from the shoreline as flames advanced in some places.
“The truth is that they forgot us,” 87-year-old Sotiria Kalaboka said. “From the beginning, the airplanes did not come to drop (water), to act.”
Kotzias Thrasyvoulos, a beach cafe owner in Pefki, on the other side of the island, said firefighters needed air units, much like infantry needs air support in a battle.
“If they had brought the helicopters and the planes immediately and had stayed for six or seven hours straight, the fire would have been put out from the beginning on the first day,” he said, although fire officials said water-dumping aircraft couldn't be everywhere at once.
A fire brigade official said he understood people who lost their homes were upset, but said firefighters had done all they could. “All firefighters, all fire engines were in the fronts from the beginning,” said the unidentified official.
Mitsotakis apologized for delays in the firefighting effort and announced 500-million-euro ($590 million) relief package, while defending his government’s action.
“I want to tell them that I completely understand what they feel, both the pain and the disappointment, and the desperation,” he told a news conference. “I want to tell them they will not be unassisted, the state will be close to them.”
Many on Evia weren't buying it.
“What can they give me? A loan to pay off? How can I pay it off? With what?,” said 53-year old Anastasia, whose last was wasn't given. She said she and her husband had built a house there were making a small income from beehives and olive trees, all now gone.
“Everything burned. Our dreams burned, our memories burned, everything, everything. Not even one photograph from my dad’s home is left,” she said.
Zoi Charasti, 55, owned a pastry shop in Rovies and had lived above the shop for the past 38 years but the fire consumed most of the building after police told her to get out fast.
When she got back all she saw was burned mixers and refrigerators, even the bread inside singed. She was overwhelmed by sadness and anger when she returned to see what remained of her shop – burned mixers and refigerators.
“We don’t know what to expect now, and we had so much equipment that it is really difficult for us to buy it all again from the beginning, it requires a lot of money that we will not receive,” she said.
Germany's state broadcaster Deutsche Welle was among foreign media which sent correspondents to the the island to report what had happened there and also recorded the residual anger and hurt as well as sadness and loss.
The story noted how the sun loungers on the beach are empty because people didn't come after the fires which burned almost right down to the sea, with the smell of smoke and soot still lingering in the air, blacked holes still spitting smoke in many places.
A young Israeli family was among the few tourists there. "We'd already booked," they said. "A friend of ours owns a house here. But it's burnt down, so now we're staying in a hotel."
Nikos Tekinarglis, who runs a bar on the beach, said that. "We mustn't despair," but the fear showed. “It's an economic disaster for everyone here whose livelihood depends on the forest or on tourism,” he said.
He, too, accused the government of abandoning the island but said that residents teamed to fight the fires where they could and will lead a recovery. "I was moved to see all the young people pitching in and helping,” he said.
Eleni Alexandridi's language school burned down and she said the crisis management was a failure, just as critics said it was when SYRIZA ruled, governments not learning anything.
The mistake they made was to simply evacuate the villages in order to avoid casualties," she said, defended by Mitsotakis who said human lives took precedent over properties and buildings.
She said she didn't see any of the hundreds of firefighters there, including some 120 from Poland that arrived in the last days, too late to help in some places.
"The only people helping were volunteers from our island," she reports. "Where anything has been saved, they were the ones who did it. It was three days before I saw a firefighter. I asked him, 'Where have you been?' He replied, 'Don't ask.'"
At the village of Limni, the dramatic scene of a night rescue by ferry of 1,153 people as the fires burned high into the sky amid hilltops, one man said he tried to use a garden hose to stop a burning pine tree from falling on his house.
"The fire department just turned off the water," he claimed, without verification.
Dimitris Giannakoulas, a restaurant owner, refused to leave and said he and other men from Limni stayed and fought the flames. "The only reason our houses are still standing is that there were no strong winds," he explains.
Thodoris, a young mechanic, said no one in the town saw any firefighters or water-dumping aircraft and some there took to calling into TV stations to report the fires descending on them, begging for help.
"They said on TV that planes couldn't fly because the winds were too strong. But there was no wind," he said, showing videos of smoke hanging motionless in the air.
"There was no organized response whatsoever," he told Deutsche Welle. "We took the fire department's hoses and put the fires out ourselves."
Rafal Solowin, an officer with the Polish brigade sent to provide assistance, says they came as fast as they could. "As soon as Greece triggered the EU Civil Protection Mechanism, we left immediately. It took us three days to get here."
Constantinos Liarikos, the head of development at WWF Greece, said, "It has everything to do with the fact that, in these conditions of climate crisis, not enough is being done on prevention.”
"The government – like all the governments of recent decades – refuses to invest in preparing authorities, volunteers and citizens,” he said.
A committee set up after the Mati disaster made recommendations WWF said were ignored.
"In the years that have followed, nothing has been done, just as nothing was done after the fire disaster in 2007. Expert assessments are simply thrown in the trash," said Liarikos.