I’ve been spending a good portion of my summer here in Greece, the homeland of my wife’s parents who immigrated to the USA in the 1970’s.
This is my first trip to this ancient place but even more surprisingly also the first for Angela, my wife who is fluent in the Greek language, reading and writing it as well.
I had romanticized about writing and brainstorming new books, or at least making steady progress towards finishing my current WIP. While I did some writing, the truth is I mostly went to the beach, swam in the crystal-clear blue waters, consumed a large early afternoon meal with copious amounts of ouzo with my extended Greek family and friends then retreated to my airconditioned bed for an afternoon siesta, rising around five or six pm then going out and doing it all over again until midnight or after.
That carefree lifestyle came to an abrupt end on July 23 when wildfires hit two regions not far from Athens, in fact practically in the suburbs. While we were safe, some two-hundred-miles away near the port city of Gytheio in the Peloponnese Peninsula, it still hit us hard.
As of this post, ninety-two confirmed deaths resulted, to say nothing of the scores of injured and thousands left homeless. Just days before the fire we had traveled through one of the hard-hit areas when we arrived at the Port of Rafina, offloading our rental car from the ferry which had taken us back to the mainland from the Island of Mykonos. The port itself, untouched became the command center where survivors picked up from beaches or even some, running for their lives into the water found themselves swept out to sea, were brought.
After traveling through the area, it is difficult to fathom how such devastation occurred. Indeed, a fire can happen anywhere, but this was a built up, populated area adjacent to the sea. Hardly the type of place where being caught up in a wildland fire would be something one would concern themselves.
On more in-depth examination, it became terrifyingly clear as to why the loss of life occurred and perhaps even incredible that more did not perish given the circumstances that day. I don’t mean to criticize or judge, but rather describe my impressions. There are so many things that we take for granted in the USA, things that we probably never even think about but were absent, at least by my observation.
Hardly a third world country, Greece has all the modern amenities that one would find in the USA. But if you peel back the surface you realize that the nation is also not quite in the first world either. Outside of Athens, and even there, seeing a police officer was rare, even more so fire stations. Fire hydrants were almost non-existent except along the National Highway, a fairly modern development. The narrow roads, choked by traffic had uncut undergrowth, tinder-dry and so high that it blocked roads signs and presumably evacuation route directions if such were ever erected.
By all accounts, the front line public safety professionals performed heroically. But they were hampered by inept and just as often corrupt public officials. It is no secret that little of the tax revenue collected goes to the public good. It is little wonder then that people, in a populated area less than an hour’s drive from the Acropolis, could not get help or even direction from the local authorities, largely absent from the scene even after the fires were reported to be quickly spreading.
Long after the fires were reported nothing even as basic as traffic control was being done. Many perished in gridlocked traffic, less than a half mile from the sea. A group of Danish tourists, trapped in suffocating smoke in the water on the beach could not reach any local authorities instead called the Danish Consulate which in turn had to resort to sending out an SOS to ocean-going vessels which in turn were able to raise some local fisherman who came to the rescue in their small boats while the Greek Navy rescued others swept out to sea. There are many such documented stories and I don’t need to repeat everyone here.
Reading about the circumstances raised awareness for me as well. Despite having a modern rental home three-hundred-meters from the beach, I grew concerned as I surveyed what was around us, dense uncut undergrowth. The roads leading out of the village and the whole fourteen kilometers to Gytheio, even more overgrown, no visible EMS/Fire system not even a police station. Our only option would be to seek the beach through narrow roads passable by only one car going in one direction, common in villages built hundreds or thousands of years ago. But what if we were not home, out on the road and encountered smoke or flames? It would be a crap shoot, and choosing wrong could be fatal. For the first time in my life, I felt claustrophobic. Fortunately, it began to rain, and did so steadily in the evenings and night times, drenching the landscape with much-needed moisture.
I think for me, the most tragic part was that so much of it was preventable, not just the fires reportedly set intentionally, but the response. Maybe it’s because as someone with a background in Emergency Management it’s easy for me to see the vulnerabilities and the remedies. Living in the mountain west where forest fires are very much a concern, as evidenced by the current situation in California, we are accustomed to clearcutting around evacuation routes, fire breaks, real-time information, and infrastructure ready to immediately respond.
More than anything else it made me appreciative of America. Greece is a wonderful place to visit…But there is no place like home.