Extreme heat, thick smoke and silence: fires surround Athens | Climate change | Climate and environment

Athens wakes up covered in smoke and ash. The dense black cloud passes over the Acropolis and extends to the Peloponnese. It smells of burning all over town. The few people on the street wear a mask, although since June it has not been compulsory in open spaces. Athens is generally a very lively and noisy city; This Wednesday impresses the silence. The Civil Protection asks the population not to leave their homes. In Greece, the second confinement at home due to the coronavirus pandemic has been extended from November 2020 to May 2021. “We only needed to confine ourselves in the summer”, quips Lena, a violinist from Thessaloniki who spends a few days in Athens to visit some friends. “But what remedy. There are toxic particles in the air,” he adds. The fires have arrived, one more summer. But the heat wave that has stirred them is not usual: it is the most important that Greece has suffered in decades.

Staying at home is not so easy for many people. Ten municipalities on the outskirts of Athens are without power due to the fires and six others suffer a blackout due to an overload of the electricity grid. As if that were not enough, six other municipalities are without water because the flames have burned several supply pumps. Part of the population must stay inside the houses with the windows closed, without being able to turn on the air conditioning or a fan, while the temperature again exceeds 42 degrees. Nikos, a retired sailor who lives in Neos Kosmos, a suburb of Athens, dusts off the roof of his dented car and swears out loud. He spent the whole day sweating at home. There is no air conditioning and I couldn’t open the windows to keep the smoke out.

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The situation is out of control all over Greece. In Euboea, one of the largest islands in the country, the fire burned more than 150 houses throughout the day. Thirteen villages evacuated. The tongue of fire reaches the beaches. Hundreds of bathers somehow escaped in boats. Eleni, a primary school teacher who lives in Psajná, a town in Euboea 20 kilometers from the fire zone, says the sun was not visible in the morning. “It’s like it’s night. The smoke is so thick that you can’t see the streets. We’re locked up at home, we can’t do anything, “he says by phone.

In the afternoon, the flames of another fire are fanned. In ancient Olympia, birthplace of the games that bear his name, a mayor enters the live broadcast of public television ERT1 by telephone and desperately asks his neighbors to leave their homes. “I understand the anger and the desire to save your homes, but it’s not worth it. It’s very dangerous,” he said almost shouting.

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A woman leaves her home in Varimpompi, a northeast suburb of Athens.
A woman leaves her home in Varimpompi, a northeast suburb of Athens.


In Jalquidiquí, near Thessaloniki, there is another big fire. Another in Kozani. And another in Kilkis. 118 have been recorded across Greece in 24 hours, although most are small and disappearing quickly.

The fire affecting Athens broke out on the afternoon of Tuesday August 3. It all started in Varimpompi, a suburb of Athens, in the municipality of Acarnas, located on the slopes of Parnes, one of the three mountain ranges that surround the Hellenic capital. It is an area of ​​single-family homes surrounded by pine forest and scrubland. The fire has spread because the vegetation is drier than usual. For more than a week, Greece has been experiencing a heat wave as we have not remembered for decades. During the day, temperatures are around 45 degrees (47.1 degrees were recorded on Tuesday in Lagadas, a city in the north of the country); at night they do not drop below 33. The little wind there is is dry and hot. It does not refresh.

Citizens collaborate on extinguishing tasks in the Tatoi Forest, near the town of Acharnes.
Citizens collaborate on extinguishing tasks in the Tatoi Forest, near the town of Acharnes.


In the middle of the afternoon on Tuesday, the first evacuation orders arrived. Three hundred people were taken to safety. Some domestic animals could not be moved and sheep, chickens, cats and dogs died. A riding club managed to save 256 horses, but two others escaped. At 5:05 p.m., the Civil Protection sent the first SMS to all phones in the Athens metropolitan area: “If you are in Varimpompi or Adames, please evacuate the area immediately for your safety. There is a forest fire in your area. At 8:00 p.m., the Civil Protection again sent an SMS and expanded the areas from which they had to leave: Thrakomakedones and Villa Olímpica had to be evacuated immediately.

In a store in central Athens, Alkis, a man who appears to be in his fifties, helplessly tells the shopkeeper how he saw his car and his house burn. “The flames came, they weren’t going very fast but they were unstoppable. High up you saw them approaching and there was nothing you could do. I was paralyzed, I didn’t know what to do as I watched my house and my car get eaten. Until they yelled at me and I ran away.”

In July 2018, another fire burned hundreds of homes and killed around 100 people in Mati, also near Athens. On this occasion, the flames traveled on the back of hurricane gusts of more than 100 kilometers per hour. Fortunately, at Varimpompi there was no strong wind and there were no victims to mourn. Fires are a common occurrence during the Hellenic summer, but Mati marked a before and after. It was a huge collective trauma and the final blow to the government of Alexis Tsipras. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis remembered that fires were a central part of his campaign in 2019 and wanted to make the 2021 fires profitable again. “Unlike three years ago, this time we were able to evacuate all people safely. “, he said. In a statement, the opposition party, Syriza, criticized the fact that he is “gripping his chest with an entire city set on fire”. At least 90 and 30 businesses were set on fire in Varimpompi The firefighters spent the night fighting a fire that they were unable to control.

Greece and Turkey practice “seismic diplomacy”. Although their relationship is very strained – there are several open territorial disputes and regular scuffles – the governments put aside rivalry during natural disasters to help each other. This time it is not possible as Turkey is also facing huge forest fires. Same as Albania and North Macedonia. The whole region faces a similar situation. And the forecast is that it will continue to be very hot. It is not finished.

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