The first time I heard the word ‘φλογα’ used with frequency was during Athens 2004, when the modern Olympic Games finally returned home.
Lit by the sun and kept burning throughout the Games, it symbolizes the divine fire stolen from Zeus by Prometheus in mythology and kept burning at the altar of Hestia in Ancient Olympia. In 2004, the Olympic flame was accidentally extinguished by a gust of wind the night before its global relay.
Three years later, as I watch Ancient Olympia burning and gale force winds exacerbate flames that are seemingly eternal, ‘φλογα’ has come to symbolize something very real and different.
List of Major Fires, from Athens to Zacharo
By no means is this an exhaustive list of every fire in Greece, but these were/are the major ones listed in chronological order. Clicking each one brings you to a related article I sourced from the Kathimerini, Athens News or BBC.
Mani and Halkidiki
Athens, Elounda (Crete), Larisa, Pindus Mountains, Poros, Samos and Zakynthos
Athens, Patra, Penteli (Athens), Rafina and Vrillisia
Papagou, Imittos (Athens) again
What Greece was promised
In 2004, New Democracy made promises that impacted this summer’s events, but kept only three:
x Organize NGO and private sector participation in policy planning
√ Create nationwide zoning plan
(Implementation and enforcement are different matters)
√ Promote recycling
x Compile forest registry
(The most recent battle broke out in May 2007, stalling forward progress)
x Increase reforestation rates
Years ago, Independent MP Stephanos Manos proposed a plan to green areas of Athens to disperse pollution, instead of creating one large park in Helleniko — his plan was labeled “radical” and never materialized, much like the park now scheduled for completion by 2012.
Back in March, the ministry stated that 109 million euros would be spent on improving road networks in forest areas and clearing some or all vegetation in areas around campsites, power stations and other buildings to avert the breakout of fires in the summer months.
Back in May, the general secretariat for civil protection announced that it would issue a daily color-coded map denoting areas of forest fire risk on a scale of 1 to 5 during fire season — May 1 to October 30. It is unclear whether pertinent information reached the right people and if resources were actually made available to lower the risk.
What can be done now?
No matter who or what is responsible, spending time and energy on assigning blame and making excuses is pointless — the past is over and cannot be changed. What empowers people is the knowledge of what can be done now and in the future. It is your choice to be part of the solution or not.
All action, no matter how small, is a step in the right direction.
1. Don’t flick cigarettes out the car window while driving or on the ground near dried grass, paper or plants — Many forest fires are started this way
2. Don’t burn garbage
3. Make certain that roasting/cooking fires are controlled — Keep an eye on burning ashes, coals or kindling that can fly away or make contact with grass, brush, etc.
4. Request or lodge a complaint that your municipality trim trees away from power lines or remove dried brush that pose a fire hazard if you cannot do it yourself
5. Face mirrors away from direct sunlight
6. Homes in rural and remote areas should be armed with fire extinguishers, a water reserve with hose/pump, wool blankets, ladder, rakes, brooms, boots and a first aid kit. Some people also put important documents, photos and other valuables in a fireproof safe, just in case.
7. Be alert and report suspicious activity to authorities — Police and rangers are understaffed, they need your help to keep the country and your home safe. A one million euro reward is also being offered by the Alpha channel
8. Support responsible reforestation and treeplanting — Cleanup Greece, Plant Your Roots in Greece and other organizations have programs with scheduled plantings in carefully selected areas of need. Forest Protection Volunteers of Attica (EDASA) also appreciates volunteers. 12 Ag. Konstantinou Street, 104 31 Omonia, Tel: (210) 520-0680. Email: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
9. Donate to a special fund — Individuals wishing make donations can visit the branch of any commercial bank and make a deposit to Account no. 2341103053 of the Bank of Greece.
10. Vote — If you’re a Greek citizen who thinks your vote doesn’t matter, think again. Use your power to choose someone that can change Greece and the course of your life. If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain for the next 4 years.
People are recommended against going to affected areas to help because it blocks roads and puts inexperienced untrained people at risk. Should more people be injured and die, it only puts more stress on overworked firefighting and emergency personnel.
For Greeks and Philhellenes abroad:
Endorsed by the World Council of Hellenes Abroad, American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association and the Hellenic American National Council, “Plant Your Roots in Greece” accepts donations and initiates careful plantings to reforest Greece. See their donation info or PDF.
AHEPA also set up an emergency relief fund, but is now closed to donations. My personal experience with this reputable and active organization has been nothing but positive.
There is nothing more you can do to help, but pray for those who are affected. The EU has sent professionally trained personnel, along with the necessary firefighting equipment to assist Greece.
Travel to Greece
If you have an upcoming trip to Greece, you must decide if you feel safe and wish to continue living your life as planned. I traveled abroad from New York a few days after 9/11 because I felt no imminent threat, while many canceled their flights. It’s a uniquely personal choice.
Many areas are affected, many are not. There have been fires nearly every day in Athens since the end of June and at no time was the airport or the country of Greece closed for business. It is still a beautiful country, and your tourism could fuel this country’s recovery for which the people of Greece would be grateful.
Being an advocate of environmental issues and a resident Philhellene, I struggled to organize objective information while staving off emotions such as anger, frustration and despair. I become quiet when I see other people in pain, and today I’ve been very quiet.
In the News
“Fighting Greek fire” — The Economist
Greece convicts an elderly woman who started a fire accidentally while cooking outdoors, a fireman, a local mayor, a regional governor and a fire brigade official for failing to take precautionary measures in fire prevention. In other words, the wrong people were convicted and the real perpetrators are still at large.
Photos from NASA and the BBC