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Society

Volunteers on Evia Carried the Fight Against Wildfires

While Greece was overwhelmed with 586 fires almost simultaneously, the biggest – on the island of Evia 69 miles northeast of Evia – almost cut it in half, frantic residents and volunteers battling blazes on a number of fronts.

They did it, they said, because the response from the fire brigade that was stretched past its limits and capacity, was too little, too late, villagers complaining there were not enough water-dumping aircraft.

They even took to calling Greek TV stations to plead for help as the island of pristine pine forests and home to bee keepers and a resin and olive oil industry among others was being consumed.

While the government called in aid from 22 countries across Europe, there were just not enough firefighters and equipment to go around, but those on Evia wondered why Greece's second-largest island wasn't a priority.

Volunteers were the first – and at times only – line of defense against the wildfires that engulfed the island, leaving charred olive trees in a sea of ashes, the Christian Science Monitor noted in a report.

It was a motley and brave gang, young people joined by those who came from as far away as the Peloponnese to pitch in, trying to save land and trees on the island that's a favored vacation spot and counts on tourists for revenues.

They used garden hoses, tree branches, anything they could lay their hands on but it was a losing cause against fires raging hundreds of feet into the air, eating trees like The Nothing in The Never Ending Story.

At one point, the seaside village of Limni – much like the seaside village of Mati that was nearly destroyed in July 23, 2018 wildfires that killed 102 people – was on the verge of being burned down.

A ferry boat came to rescue 1,153 people, eerie images showing the craft pulling away from the shore as trees on hills illuminated a a night orange sky, but many refusing to leave, staying to try to save their homes and livelihoods.

Prime Minister and New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis admitted there were lapses in the response, although nothing like the utter chaos in the then-ruling Radical Left SYRIZA government in 2018 that had no disaster or evacuation plans and let the fires rages, not sending craft to rescue people standing in the sea waters at Mati.

The volunteers, aided by grassroots support from other nearby cities and towns, said the report from Tony Rigopoulos, helped save lives and property from roaring blazes across the island.

“The destruction the fires caused is nonetheless catastrophic for many living on Evia, especially in its heavily wooded north. But the actions of volunteers helped prevent loss of life and keep a bad situation from becoming that much worse,” the report added.

THE BRAVE

The fires didn't hit the critical port of Aidipsos, home to famed thermal baths and spas, and a major ferry boat junction that was now used to carry firefighters and volunteers from across the country who joined in, but smoke hung over it. 

Some 110,000 acres was burned just outside the town and villages burned even as people cried for help that didn't come, complaints that the government sent its resources to other blazes north of Athens that were so intense that white soot and smoke filled the air of the capital for several days.

It was an environmental disaster too, along with the loss of homes and businesses and hopes, Evia known for its winds and forests, the blazes also incinerating vineyards and scaring off tourists who stayed away in the 2020 pandemic year and were expected to come back this summer.

Five days after the start of the fires, one volunteer named Marinos, who now studies in Athens, went with his friends to the burning north side because he said there were no firefighters there.

“We took branches from trees to hit the flames until they died,” said Marinos, who didn’t give his last name. “Later a man came from the village with his car, carrying the watering tank he uses for his vines. We used that water too. We used anything we could find.”

Soccer coach Vaggelis Bekakos, from Limni, praised the locals and volunteers who didn't run but stayed at the risk of their lives, including a civil engineer who kept a night watch looking for any rekindling.

“The volunteers saved Evia because there was no one there to help,” he said. There were fierce wildfires in 2016 and residents of Limni then created a volunteer force that was put into play this time.

He said there heroic acts saved the town and inspired villagers across the island not to leave but to combat the conflagration as it spread and hopped around, satellite imagery showing the scope and scale of the destruction.

“We were asking the fire service to spray some water on a house that was beginning to burn and they would answer, ‘We have no such order. Our order is to evacuate the people, not to spray water,’” he said was the response.

The government “sent an evacuation message to hide behind an excuse: ‘I warned you to leave and you decided to stay. … If you get burned, get burned alone because the state cannot protect you,’” said Bekakos.

Mitsotakis said that, “We managed to save lives, but we lost forests and property. What we see today is what was burned, but we do not see what was saved. Thanks to the superhuman efforts of both the firefighters and the volunteers and the citizens themselves, countless houses have been saved.”

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