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‘We were at God’s mercy’: islanders count cost of Greek wildfires

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Efstathios Nicolaou had delayed his sister’s funeral for two days as the worst wildfires in Greece’s recent history convulsed his native island of Evia, submerging it in a thick cloud of smoke, forcing thousands to flee and upending life as locals knew it.

Then came the evacuation order. Yet the Nicolaous stayed put in the village of Asmini, concluding the ceremony and burying their relative, who died of causes unrelated to the fire, as flames raged behind them. And staying put, they said, is what saved their homes.

“The villages that have been evacuated have been destroyed,” his daughter Phedra said. “The ones left intact we saw they didn’t evacuate. We realised the locals saved the villages. Locals were communicating with each other and preventing fires from coming to other villages, and some people were almost burnt [in doing so].

Evia resident Phedra Nicolaou says many homes were saved only because locals disobeyed evacuation orders and defended their property © Nicolas Economou/FT

A resident drops water as he fights the wildfire in the village of Gouves in Evia. Islanders say they felt abandoned when the fires hit © Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP via Getty Images

Wildfires have ravaged the southern Mediterranean and elsewhere this season, fuelled by record-breaking heatwaves that experts say will become more common as climate change — with some of its consequences deemed irreversible — continues.

The devastation has been particularly intense in Evia, Greece’s second-largest island, where fires that have blazed for nearly two weeks in the north have burnt 50,900 hectares of woodland, according to the EU’s Copernicus emergency management service, and destroyed dozens of businesses. A new fire broke out closer to the island’s main city of Chalcis on Friday and was being battled by firefighters and aircraft.

An animated map showing wildfires in the Mediterranean during summer 2021. From late July, fires surge in Italy, Turkey, Greece and Algeria

Evia relies on agriculture and tourism, but locals say its soul lies in the industries that depend on its forests, including resin collection and honey production, which employ hundreds.

“We live for the forest,” said Angelos Anagnostou, a retired farmer from the village of Kourkouli in the north, where fires have destroyed bee hives and vast tracts of forest. “I wish nobody in the world would ever experience this.”

Dozens of islanders told the Financial Times they felt abandoned as trees and livelihoods were destroyed. While extremely grateful to the volunteer and professional firefighters on the ground — whose resources, they say, were stretched beyond capacity — many criticised the late arrival of firefighting aircraft.

Petros Aidinian, whose house near Agia Anna in the north was completely obliterated, said “nobody cared” and that there were “no airplanes” as the fire arrived.

Petros Aidinian in front of the ruins of his home near Agia Anna © Nicolas Economou

Athens has pushed back on some of the criticism, but prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis apologised earlier this week by saying efforts were “not enough” in certain cases. But the government said the evacuation orders had saved lives, with few wildfire-related casualties.

The government has pledged €500m as part of a relief package and appointed Christos Triantopoulos as minister in charge of recovery from natural disasters.

Map showing area burnt by wildfires on Evia island in Greece

Sultana Sourila, a restaurant owner in the village of Galatsona, said she was told to leave when the fires began. “We didn’t go because we wanted to save our house,” she said. “Luckily, when the fire came we had water and firefighters were here.”

Yorgos Moraitis, the owner of a petrol station in the village of Roviés, battled the fire that streamed down from the nearby mountain with the help of volunteers and his son Mikhalis, a former firefighter. “It was out of control, we were at God’s mercy,” he said.

Rain between Wednesday and Thursday had helped tame the flames but raised the spectre of floods, said Moraitis. “There is no [disaster] infrastructure, [natural] incidents are increasing,” he said. “I’m very scared about the future. The economy is finished.”

As the fires raged less than 100m away from her hotel in the beach resort of Pefki, hotelier Chrysoula Liakou told her guests to leave and prepared to bring her elderly parents, Pariso, 89, and Yorgos, 87, to safety.

“The house was going to burn down,” Liakou said. “My parents were very scared, their hearts went ‘clap-clap’, the dog cried. Terrible, terrible.”

Pariso, right, and Yorgos Liakou wait out the night aboard a rescue ferry after being evacuated from Pefki © Kostas Tsironis/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The family were taken on board a ferry anchored near the beach and waited there till the following day. Now, Liakou is back home. “All tourists are gone, no work, no money,” she said.

Near Kourkouli, the fires have devastated the resin industry. “We were in full production. It’s a catastrophe,” said Yannis Gerogiannis, a resin collector for 32 years. “What should we do? We’re jobless, it’s a blackout. It will take at least 40 years to regrow the trees.”

“I’m 38. I will not see this forest again like it was, nor the next generation,” said Yorgos Anagnostou, the son of Angelos and a fellow resin collector who said he was now contemplating emigration. As the flames engulfed the area, his parents drove through thick smoke for a kilometre to reach their livestock and help others. When their truck broke down, they said, they opened a fire hydrant on the road and sheltered beneath the stream of water, which protected them from an advancing wall of flame.

Resin collector Yorgos Anagnostou says he and even the next generation will never see the forest return to the way it was
Resin collector Yorgos Anagnostou says he and even the next generation will never see the forest return to the way it was © Nicolas Economou/FT

The forest near Pefki after the wildfires swept through. The local honey and resin industries depend on the pine trees © Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters

With people searching for answers about how calamity overtook their communities so rapidly, conspiracy theories are rife. Eleni, the daughter of Sourila, claimed the fire was “staged”. “They wanted to burn us,” she said.

Zoy Chalasti, who for 38 years has owned a now-destroyed café in Roviés, said there were rumours the fires had been started deliberately to clear land for wind turbines. “I tend to believe them because there is no other explanation, I believe climate change is involved with the forest, it was dry and arid. But here in the village they wanted to destroy us,” she said.

“The economy won’t bounce back and we won’t, either,” Chalasti added. “I’m seriously thinking of leaving, as are many others from the village.”

But despite the destruction, the rain that arrived on Thursday gave firefighters and residents some sorely needed respite. “Vrechi,” Chalasti said, looking up and smiling. Meaning — “It’s raining.”

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