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Greece’s Island of Flames – Evia – Symbol of Europe’s Summer of Hell

ATHENS — While it seemed like all the fires were in Greece, 2021 has been hellish all across Europe where blazes destroyed huge swathes of forests but nowhere more so than Greece's second-biggest island of Evia, 69 miles northeast of the capital Athens.

Also spelled Euboea, it's 1,422 square miles that's easily reached, including a land connection as well as ferry boats and includes pristine forests and green hills and a favorite vacation destination before the fires hit, for a week.

In a feature, The New York Times noted not just the destruction but how Evia became the epicenter of fires blamed largely on climate change, but in Greece also because of failure to clear woods, arson, and unlawful dumping.

One resident, Harilaos Tertipis, saw most of his sheep burned, a few survivors huddled on a roadside hill below, the bells on their necks clanging and their legs singed and said he would have been a victim if he hadn't fled.

While some residents resisted rescue – some 1,153 were saved around the village of Limni and put on a ferry boat that left amid eerie night images of orange skies and flames soaring – others said they wanted to stay to protect their homes. Tertipis said if he hadn't left that, “I wouldn’t be here now.”

The fires on Evia consumed nearly half the island and on the northern side incinerated more than 120,000 acres of pine forest, razed homes and displaced hundreds of people, the report said.

As Greece tried to deal with 586 fires at one point, deploying most of its arsenal of firefighters and equipment, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis asked for help from 22 countries and said it was “a natural disaster of unprecedented dimensions” although not as big or deadly as 2007 fires that killed 67 people.

After the former ruling Radical Left SYRIZA was blistered by criticism it had no disaster plan and was responsible for 102 deaths in July 23, 2018 wildfires that nearly wiped out the seaside village of Mati northeast of Athens, Mitsotakis' New Democracy reacted swiftly.

But he said later that there were lapses in responses even though the scope and scale of the disaster was so overwhelming that Greece couldn't deal with it alone even as other European countries were constantly battling blazes.

The swiftness and savagery of the fires overtook all the country's resources but the spotlight was on Evia where some residents took to calling TV stations to complain they weren't being helped, pleading for water-dropping aircraft.

Wind and record heat during a wave that reached 116 degrees in some places created tinderbox woods and forests and several arrests for arson were made, including an Afghan woman who swiftly got a five-year jail term for trying to start a fire in a major Athens park. 

THE HEAT WAS ON

A string of disasters across Europe has set off renewed debate about global warming and climate change that's still being denied by those who don't believe in science but in conspiracy theories.

“Beyond the fires that have raged in the American West, or in Turkey and Algeria, virtually no corner of Europe has been untouched by a bewildering array of calamities, whether fire, flood or heat,” the paper said.

“It’s not just Greece,” said Vasilis Vathrakoyiannis, a spokesman for the Greek fire service. “It’s the whole European ecosystem.”

Evia became the unhappy symbol of the earth at a tipping point, an island of woods, bee keepers, resin producers, its olive groves and seaside resorts, including Aidipsos, famous for thermal springs since ancient times.

“We lived in paradise,” Babis Apostolou, 59, tears in his eyes as he looked over the charred land surrounding his village, Vasilika, on the northern tip of Evia. “Now it’s hell,” he told Times reporter Jason Horowitz.

When the police told Argyro Kypraiou, 59, in the Evia village of Kyrinthos to flee,  she stayed, using a garden hose against fires across the street from her home, and then trying to beat back flames with branches.

“If we had left, the houses would have burned,” she said as a truck went by and the driver shouted there was another fire in the field behind her house. “We keep putting out fires,” she shouted back. “We don’t have any other job.”

While past fires have seen development on the ruined remains, Mitsotakis became the first Premier to say he would ban building on burned land to take away any incentive for arsonists or developers.

Greece’s top prosecutor has ordered up an investigation into whether organized crime that's been a target of a police crackdown may be retaliating by setting fires or to clear land for developers to profit.

Tertipis said, “I hope the person who set these fires will suffer as much as my animals,” and conspiracy theories popped up too, including that environmentalists warned to burn the land so that wind turbines could be installed – which they rejected, noting it would be a disincentive.

“We all have to make changes,” said Irini Anastasiou, 28, looking out from the front desk of her now empty hotel in the village of Pefki, which was almost overrun by the fire.

“Usually, you see clear across to the mountains,” she said. “Now you can see nothing.”

Tertipis, 60, who lost his mother and suffered permanent scarring on his left arm in a 1977 fire, came back this time to find most of his flock cremated but, oddly, didn't touch a green pine tree and field a few dozen yards away.

rushed back from home to his stables before dawn on Sunday. The fire had 

“That’s how it is, in five minutes, you live or die,” he said, adding, “the fire just changes all the time.”

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