Prompted by the recent wildfires in the Amazon rainforest, I came to realize not only the magnitude of the environmental damage it created, but also that the latter represents only a part of the problem. Within such cases, it is important that one considers the role of governance. In other words, how can one mobilise a country’s resources it the most effective way possible? Regardless of the government involved, regardless whether it is the destruction of the Amazon, or the region of Mati, and regardless the destruction spanned 2.6 million km2 , or 12 km2, accountability still stands, and neglect still hails dire consequences.
On the 23d of July 2018, my plane from Brussels was the last plane, for a couple of days, to land at the airport “Eleftherios Venizelos”. A wildfire had just started in the nearby town of Kineta, of which you could see nothing but thick smoke. Not long after, a second wildfire started in the region of Pendeli in Northern Athens. With a speed of up to 125 km/h, the latter spread to the coastal regions of Mati, Kokkino Limanaki and Neos Voutzas. It was then that the chaos began.
The “tragedy of Mati”, as it is widely known, was the deadliest Greek wildfire in modern history. More than 1000 buildings were destroyed, 172 people were wounded, and 104 people killed. Not in an isolated forest, not on a landlocked area, but in densely populated towns just a few kilometers away from Athens. People were burnt alive while trapped in their homes. People were burnt in their cars while trying to reach for the coast. And those who did reach the coast waited for hours in the sea, only to discover that government-led marine help never came. Rather, this responsibility was left to fishermen, who happened fortunately to be docked nearby. While lives and property were lost in the flames, communities banded together as food supplies, clothes and other essentials were provided by thousands of volunteers in Syntagma Square. But where was the state?
The Tsipras administration, and his political party SYRIZA, attributed its failure to prevent the worst of the wildfires to natural causes. For the government, recent changes to the local climate, and the persistence of unprecedented and extreme weather were ultimately to blame. However, this wasn’t the only problem with how the situation was handled.
An initial mistake was that of the imbalanced distribution of resources within the Greek fire department. More than 150 firemen, 60 vehicles, 2 helicopters and 20 aquifers were sent to Kineta, around 8pm on the 23d of July. However, the paradox of the situation lay in the fact that the region of Kineta had already been evacuated by that time, and there were no immediate risks of casualties within the area. Mati, in comparison, did not benefit from such a mobilization. It wasn’t until 10 pm that the Head of the region of Attica declared the wildfires to be an emergency. More than 600 homes had to be destroyed, and two calls stating that people were being burnt alive had to be made for the situation to become an urgent one.
One of the most disappointing moments was the stance of the government during the peak of the tragedy. Around midnight of the same day, Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, and other government officials claimed that they weren’t aware of the extent of the wildfires. Meanwhile, news of the casualties had already become the central focus on mainstream media. By then it was evident that the fate of the fire-stricken people was in the hands of a government that wished to depoliticize the issue and still, three days after the incident, was still denying any responsibility. However, these soon-to-be-proven-fatal errors constituted only a small part of the overall governmental mishandling, before the wildfires had even broken out. Illegal houses had been built along the mountains surrounded by dense flora, vegetation had been allowed to grow wild alongside the Marathon Boulevard, and little awareness had been raised about the official emergency number, “112”. Such incidences of neglect enabled the greater spread of the fire which, with greater foresight, could not have happened.
One year later, Mati still tries to recover from the ordeal it underwent. Despite the multiple fund-raising events organized in the memory of losses inflicted by the fires, full property reconstruction and compensation for the victims is yet to have taken place. More specifically, out of the 38 million euros allocated to the reconstruction and other related operations, only 7 have been used so far.
Although amending and improving preventative guidelines is mostly an administrative matter, there’s much we can do as individuals if we live in fire-prone areas. The Secretariat of the Greek Civil Protection urges citizens to avoid lighting fires or barbeques in high-risk areas and discarding lit cigarettes and rubbish in near forests. Lastly, it encourages citizens to inform the municipal authorities to deal with excess dry garden waste.
Unfortunately, the “tragedy of Mati” still failed to teach the Greek authorities to take the necessary precautions for the prevention of wildfires. On August 13th 2019, the Greek island of Evia was alight with flames once more. The newly elected government, under the Mitsotakis administration, proceeded with a quick mobilization of resources as well as necessary evacuation operations. However, still no preventative measures had been put in place, meaning the fires spread much further than first anticipated. This comes to show, however, that even quick reactionary operations are not enough. The problem is deeply rooted in the absence of preventative precautions put in place.