A paradise turned into a desert of ashes. A traditional Mediterranean way of life, based on honey, milk and oil, on the resin of pines, fig trees and olive trees is threatened with extinction. The north of the Greek island of Euboea, the second largest in the country – 175 kilometers from north to south and 45 kilometers at its widest point – is only now beginning to emerge from the nightmare, 12 days after the out of control fire of the August 3 last devoured forests, crops, homes and businesses. “There were no deaths, but there were thousands of living dead,” says Yorgos Tsapourniotis, mayor of Limni, a town of around 1,200 inhabitants in whose town the fire broke out this Tuesday around three o’clock in the afternoon. “There was a very strong wind and it spread very quickly. In 30 minutes, he already covered a front of three kilometers. 300 houses were burnt down, completely reduced to ashes. There are another 800 businesses damaged and 40 destroyed. Some 36,000 hectares burned. The mayor responds by giving orders or answering neighbors on cell phones while sitting in the town square. “We live in incredible chaos. We received no help and when it arrived it was too late”.
“Not only did the place burn down. Our future was burned,” says Amalía Bloukidi, who runs the small 16-room Baterí hotel, which her family opened in 1998. “That Tuesday, the hotel was full, many guests were foreigners. We had no more help than two passes from two spray planes to drop water, and there was no plan but to evacuate. Amalia kept a cool head and, as flames besieged the hotel from both sides, she gave guests 10 minutes to collect their belongings and managed to get them out in a hurry. Four rooms were completely lost. Also its garden of medicinal and aromatic plants, one of the jewels of the island. “I don’t expect anything from the authorities, nor do I want to politicize the matter, but I accuse those who took the decisions of an absolute lack of coordination, bureaucracy, errors and indifference. They sentenced us to a slow death,” he adds. The smell of smoke is still perceptible and the blackened beams and walls testify not only to the tragedy, but also to the uncertain future that hangs over northern Evia. “The tourist season is already lost and probably for years to come. The young people are going to leave and me, at 56, even if I have the energy, where am I going to go? Who will hire me at this age? Faced with the indifference and lack of means provided by the authorities – the island’s meager resources had inevitably been transferred to the Athens region to deal with the fires – the young people of Limni and neighboring towns took the initiative of the fight against the fire, constituting for the absence of the State.
Yannis Triantafyllou, an air conditioning technician in his thirties, organized a fire brigade with a dozen friends, mobilizing all the young people in the region through social networks. “There were no firefighters. Years ago, when there was another fire, there were about 75,” he said. They quickly evacuated those they could, including his own wife and two daughters, aged 8 and 5, whom he put on a ferry along with 2,000 other people, including residents and tourists. “I thought I would be the last to go. The biggest complaint we have is that we couldn’t save more houses. We are proud of our forest and we want it back.
It is still too early to assess the damage. It is estimated that around 50,000 people, out of the island’s 210,000 inhabitants, have been affected – it is now that electricity and internet service are restored – and the Athens government, led by Prime Minister curator, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, An official investigation has been opened, although hardly anyone trusts the results. But the fires in northern Euboea, the ancient Negroponte – as the Venetians called it during their domination of the island between the 13th and 15th centuries – laid bare the abandonment it suffered for more than a decade in the rawest light. During these years, “the banks, the Treasury office, the outpatient clinics of the public health service have been closed and the nearest hospital is in Calcis, the capital, about 80 kilometers from Limni”, explains retired journalist Pambos Hatzilambis, resident in the area. for 15 years. The fire came to underline the marginalization felt by its inhabitants. “We are a forgotten island. After the economic crisis, the pandemic arrives and now, the fires. We had started operating again in June and July and the tourist season is already over. I’m afraid that young people will leave the island,” says Gianna Anifioti, representative of the local chamber of commerce and owner of a typical restaurant.
To go around the island, very mountainous and until a few days ago also very green, is now to travel through a spectral landscape of trunks and black roots, charred pines, olive trees and fig trees , valleys of ashes. Smoke still rises from some trees, such as an olive tree in the town of Rovies, to which Vangelis Marko, a 67-year-old farmer, attributes an age of more than 2,000 years. “Those of us who were born and raised here no longer recognize anything,” he says with stoic sadness, pointing to his burnt olive trees.
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About sixty kilometers further north, the young mayor of Istiea, Yannis Kontzias, declares: “The city is in danger of disappearing. There were times when I felt abandoned. No central government authority came. The economy is destroyed. It is too early to make an economic assessment, but unemployment will be close to 100%. It will be very difficult for the young people to stay.” At least the tragedy has brought a new spirit of solidarity. “The local quarrels have ended and the neighbors are more united than ever. This union is what will allow us to fight for the future,” says Kontzias, aware that the tragedy could repeat itself and that climate change always strikes twice.
Distrust of Prime Minister’s plans
Most people in northern Evia are convinced that the fires were caused by spurious interests, whether it be the promoters of wind energy and their ambition to install hundreds of wind turbines on their mountains, as rumor has it, or tourist investors who would like to build hotels and golf courses taking advantage of the fact that the island is only a two and a half hour drive from Athens. However, these same neighbors clearly recognize that no one has bothered to clear forests, remove undergrowth and create firebreaks for years. Prime Minister Mitsotakis, strongly criticized for his management of the ecological disaster, the most important in the country in modern times, although no opposition party has yet capitalized on it politically, promised aid of 500 million euros. But he sowed concern by announcing, without going into details, a development plan for the island, given its tendency to favor private initiative. Whatever happens, the islanders and their mayors are determined this time to have a say in their future.