Wildfire diary: August 2021

Northern Evia, August 2021.
Credit: TIME/Konstantinos Tsakalides.

Greece faced one of its toughest fire seasons this year, with 1.148.000 stremma (283.676 acres) having been burned during the summer, according to the Hellenic Fire Service's report.

Sadly, as is the case every year in Greece, many wildfires are caused by arson, either deliberate or negligent, as if high temperatures and other causes aren't enough. This summer however we experienced an absurd amount of arsons in every place imaginable; from forests to small city parks, with hundreds of people getting arrested for such activity. Coordinated terrorism, an attempt to weaken our forces, hysteria? I don't know, but even for Greece's standards, this wasn't "normal".

However, this whole situation left me and many others astonished at the level of unity we experienced. Thousands -- especially young people -- from all over the country volunteered to help. People bought water and food, saved animals, donated money and fought the the fires along with the firefighters. That is not to say everything was perfect, but it really was a sign of hope and something I hadn't really experienced before. My region was also badly affected, so naturally, I couldn't just give up and leave. Luckily, there's an active community of young volunteers in my town so we organized from the very first day and kept offering our help for the rest of the summer.

This fire season was also my first experience with firefighting, although I wasn't a firefighter at the time. It might sound as an exaggeration, or even romanticization, but I was thrilled by the danger and the powerlessness one feels when engaging with a wildfire. Obviously, I didn't actually do much, but all those feelings and experiences, combined with the destruction I witnessed, sparked my interest in firefighting, which eventually led to me applying to become a volunteer firefighter right after all this ended. That was the case for hundreds of other people.

August 03

First day, I am on my way back home from work and am greeted by a big cloud of smoke coming from Varibobi, one of the nearby towns which eventually suffered the most. Every news channel is talking about the fire non-stop (at least we don't get to hear about COVID-19 for the millionth time). Later that afternoon the fire somehow manages to get inside the military airfield outside my town. We can hear multiple strong explosions but luckily they aren't coming from military equipment being blown off by the fire. Close to the airfield is also the local fire station and the fire is quite literally outside of it, but the firefighters manage to save it -- after all, you can't afford to lose a fire station. At the same time, the Ministry of Civil Protection is sending us and the residents of nearby towns evacuation SMS messages. Even though me and my father have packed our stuff just in case, we decide to leave only if it's truly necessary. We go outside for a "walk" to get a first hand idea of what's happening, but much of the airfield fire has almost been extinguished, so we have no good reason to leave now.

August 04

We start collecting food, water and medicine at the local youth club. The fire has gone away from our town for now but is quickly getting out of control in the forest near Tatoi Some people decide to go and help evacuate animals from Varibobi [1]. Every few hours we also hear about arson attempts throughout Athens. That's suspicious to say the least.

August 05

Tonight we're going into the forest to aid the firefighters with what we've collected; water, food and a few packs of eye drops. I and a few other people are going to the local supermarket and pharmacy to ask for donations; we obviously can't afford to fund such an effort using just our pocket change. At 21:30 we set off for the forest after being granted permission from the police. We can already see how big the fire is (guess what: it got bigger) and one of the drivers is already a bit scared to go in. There are police checkpoints every few hundred meters but we're let in. Upon entering the forest we meet the first firefighters and start giving them what they need. Interestingly enough, after some chatting, they tell us that there isn't proper leadership which makes things really hard. We keep driving deeper into the forest searching for firefighters. We stop at a meeting point to re-plan our route because the fire is dangerously close and we'd rather not get trapped. A few hundred meters in front of us, there's a huge blaze and we're told by a firefighter that it's better to fall back. We give them everything we have left, say goodbye and return back to town. On our way back, we meet two women asking us if they can come with us for help -- they kept helping us for a few more days.

07.08.2021: Our team and a few firefighters
during the first wave of fire.

August 06

Coming back from work, the fire looks like it's almost inside my town. I take a shower and rush to the youth club to see what the plan for today is. The whole mountain (literally) right of Parnitha is burning and the sky quickly turns red. At that point it's clear that this is going to be an interesting night. We all take a moment to observe this both astonishing and scary view. The fire however is also heading towards our town very fast. We receive a call from the local fire station saying they need volunteers to bring water and people to help cut down trees so that the fire won't spread inside the town easily. I take my friend's bicycle and sprint home as fast as I can in order to get dressed up properly (safety first!) and get tools and flashlights.

When I arrive at the fire station, we immidiately ask the fire chief for orders and start cutting down trees and plants that will help spread the fire, while the firefighters stretch lines. In the meantime there are lots of bystanders watching us. An old friend recognizes us and gives us working gloves, which proved really useful and I eventually kept forever. At some point the chief tells us to stop and take a break before we engage with the fire, so we sit down and have a meal. A firefighter gives me and my friend meal packs with rice and meat -- a bit better than the sandwiches and croissants we've been eating so far. The mood is quite relaxed now and everyone seems ready -- after all, tonight's event is imminent.

While chatting with some friends, I hear a group of people, apparently from a nearby town, planning a bus depot "heist" in order to steal the fire extinguishers from the depot and bring them here. We look at each other and try to convince ourselves this is a joke, but an hour later they come back with the fire extinguishers. Surreal stuff.

August 07

It's around 01:30 AM and the fire is finally getting really close. We're welcomed with smoke and harsh wind. The chief tells me and another volunteer to force all bystanders out of here and find masks for everyone who will stay. We only have COVID masks so we wear 4-5 of them -- they can't do much though. We gather with the firefighters and make an escape plan in case the situation is hopeless and we need to fall back. We're about 20 firefighters and ~60 residents and volunteers.

We pick up the fire hoses and start pushing into the forest in order to get as much land as we can wet. Other people carry branches to "hunt" fire particles. The fire now is a just few meters away. The hoses are operated by firefighters, volunteers and residents. The chief's always close and encourages everyone to stay calm and not leave the position -- luckily, there's great cooperation; no panicking or anything. Whenever we need more/less water pressure we shout to the one behind us so that the message can reach the fire engine operator. Outside the forest are tens of people watching and also bringing us water or whatever ever else we need (i.e more water or eye drops).

At some point, a few hundred meters away, behind the wall of fire, we notice strange activity; 3 motorbikes going constantly back and forth. A firefighter tells us these vehicles are not our own and so the only possible scenarios are that they are either residents trying to extinguish the fire or arsonists. It doesn't take long to figure out they are arsonists since the fire always gets bigger at the exact same positions they are at. Needless to say this instantly makes everyone furious, rightly so... The word spreads quickly and a few moments later dozens of people along with police officers charge towards them, not minding the fire at all. Since I operate the fire hose, I cannot understand exactly what's going on, but it kind of feels like we're at war in some sense. One of the arsonists later drives to our side and has a dispute with a volunteer who managed to get his bike's license plate number. He plays stupid and pretends his house is on fire and asks us to give him a fire extinguisher so that he can "save his house". A fight almost breaks out when someone tells him he's lying. Note that even though everyone knows he's lying, police cannot arrest him since they didn't catch him in action, but there's a whole story behind this.

I learned about the following incident several weeks later: Two guys from our team are bringing supplies and on their way to the front they notice a woman desperately screaming that her house is burning. A few moments later she starts running towards the fire (possibly to kill herself) but the two guys and one police officer manage to drag her out just in time. I don't know what happened to her.

The main fire has been extinguished now (04:30 AM). I call my father to let him know we're all okay. We take a small break, because although andrenaline is high, heat drains you really quickly (save the fact that I hadn't slept for almost 2 days). I meet a few old classmates and friends and we're all happy our town is saved. The firefighters shake our hands saying that things would be way worse if they were let alone. The feeling is quite literally undescribable (no, I won't try to describe it).

However, there are still hot spots here and there, some of them including houses and trees, which means the fire can spread again. The fire engines are out of water so our only tools now are tree branches and home fire extinguishers, which do close to nothing in such situations, but nonetheless, we have to make do with whatever we have. There are about 15 fire extinguishers (thanks to the guys who stole them) available so whoever's still got energy left picks one up and heads into the forest again. The fire chief instructs us to first extinguish trees and bushes so the fire doesn't spread, otherwise we might find ourselves trapped. We move quickly from tree to tree but we're running out of extinguishers now. Me and another guy reach the first burning house but our extinguishers run out right after we try to enter inside, so we cannot bother trying. We then ecounter a resident in a pretty desperate situation asking us to take her garden hose and put out the fire in her orchard (we did, but much of it was already burned). In the meantime, there may be gas ganisters in the houses so we have to be extra careful for potential explosions. [2].

We patrol until dawn when firefighting aircraft can start flying and put out the last remaining hot spots. Hearing their engines is a pretty relieving feeling, but being relieved also means that fatigure instantly kicks in and my feet hurt so much that I can barely walk, so I collapse on the pavement once I get back to town. I go home, take a shower twice and fall into a coma until afternoon. Interesting night for sure.

08.08.2021: Meeting point in Prokopi village.

August 08

Things have calmed down a bit here. Northern Evia is being devastated and a few foreign countries -- most notably Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and France -- have sent firefighters to aid the situation there. Tonight we're going there as well. A random guy who found our team on the internet shows up with his company's truck and asks if he can help. We load the truck mostly with animal food since that's what people currently in Evia tell us they need the most. I wear my vest and set off with him for Evia at around 19:00. The national road is closed off but we've acquired a permit from the police since we're a volunteer team. Our destination is Prokopi, a small mountainous village in Northern Evia where we'll meet with local volunteers. It's also the place where the Romanian firefighters are stationed. The road to the village has got absolutely no lighting.

We arrive in Prokopi and are greeted by the volunteers there. They are kind enough to offer us homemade meals (great stuff) and drinks. I meet many good people and get a better insight about the situation. Most of them are local volunteers and police officers, or people like us who've travelled there to help. The police officer told me he had to evacuate several elderly people since EMS couldn't get to the village for some reason [3].

There is no fire in Prokopi now [4] but some of the surrounding villages are having a pretty hard time. Volunteers return from the fire front exhausted and a French unit is being sent into a forest nearby to attack the fire. I didn't have a chance to meet the Romanian firefighters, even though they were stationed literally next to us.

We unpack the truck, help organize everything, say goodbye to everyone and exchange phone numbers with some of the volunteers and leave for Athens. We want to stay here for the night, but both me and the driver have to go to work in the morning, and it's already late. We're back home at around 02:30 AM.

August 09-29

These days are not as busy or crazy as those that passed, but we continue to offer help whenever we can. The Civil Defense team of our town prepares meals every few days and gives them to the firefighters currently camping on Mount Parnitha, all at their own expense since the ministry isn't interested in helping them or the firefighters [5]. We still collect food and other goods which we send to places that need them. Some people from the team went to Evia again and others went to Peloponnese. A volunteer team from Northern Greece also sent a lorry full of stuff which we barely had enough space to store.

The military has sent units to patrol our town and the rest of the region. On one occasion we patrolled with them. Every night they come to the youth club for a coffee so we spend time together and all of them so far seem like pretty cool people. I mostly hang out with a Sergeant with whom we've got a nice interaction. Me, him and a few other guys even spend a whole night together just goofing around with an old military truck, but we also manage to later have some actually serious conversations.

August 30

Almost a month in, there are not that many fires anymore, but the destruction caused so far is immense. A guy in the team told us there's an old man in Varibobi whose house has been completely burned to the ground (literally). We decide to do something for him so that he can have at least some kind of roof above his head. This man turns out to be one of Greece's most famous war correspondents and one of the 3 photographers who happened to document the 1973 Athens Polytechnic Uprising. Apparently the fire destroyed his whole archive from 1967 to 2013, which, obviously, is the biggest loss for him. At least, many of his photographs are in museums and newspapers. Although he's had his whole life's work destroyed in an instant, he seems happy and ready to start from scratch [6]. We clean up the mess, cut down some downed trees and build a makeshift house. The smoke from the debris combined with heat gives us headaches for a few hours. After that, I sit down with him and ask about his life as a war correspodent -- he's been in Vietnam, Laos, Bosnia and Lebanon.

  1. Varibobi has a few pony clubs. There are also shepherds living there. [return]
  2. Using gas canisters seems to also be a classic arson tactic, but a burning house just happening to containin gas canisters isn't any better either. [return]
  3. There were cases in Evia where people had to be evacuated by boat to mainland Greece. [return]
  4. It rained the day before when the fire was close. [return]
  5. In many cases, firefighters -- including those I just mentioned -- were not given actual meals by the ministry (which is obligated to do so), and when they were, the cost was added to their salary, which was part of the reason why volunteers cooked meals for them in the first place. [return]
  6. He really did start from scratch. He plants trees, works on his new home (a prefabricated house and a trailer people donated to him). I still visit him from time to time when I go cycling there. Quite an inspiring character really. Here's an interview with him. [return]

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