MATI, Greece — Four days after the wildfire that raced down from the mountains, incinerating all before it, cars were once again tangled up in traffic jams in this seaside resort’s narrow streets. Search parties combed ruined homes for bodies; volunteers sought out injured and frightened pets. The nation was in mourning, shocked by the magnitude of the disaster, shaken by the stories of victims and the missing.
In a V-shaped bend where on Monday desperate residents and visitors found themselves trapped, unable to escape the heat that melted even the metal of their cars, vehicles carrying survivors who had returned to salvage some possessions, volunteers, journalists and the simply curious edged carefully past one another as they sought a way out of Mati. The only reason they did not run the risk of being burned alive was that pretty much anything in the vicinity that could burn had already burned — pine trees, houses, people, pets and cars — even a wooden umbrella on a beach where people had fled into the water. Black dust and liquefied aluminum lay on the road when the incinerated hulks were removed.
By Friday, the death toll had reached 87, with scores still missing. It was unclear how many of the bodies had been identified, a daunting task because of the intense heat most had been exposed to.
The high death toll could be attributed to reasons ranging from the labyrinthine roads to the hurricane-force gusts of wind. The fire department tried to contain the blaze when it broke out on Mount Pentelikon, famed for its pure white marble and pine forests. Thirty-nine firefighting vehicles and four water-dumping aircraft were deployed at the start, on a day on which 47 forest fires broke out. But less than 90 minutes later, Mati (which translates as “Eye”) had been all but wiped out. The swift wind had spared some buildings while gutting others.
Officials claim, justifiably, that the ferocity of the fire made their task impossible, laying waste to any civil defense planning. What they do not explain, however, is why there did not seem to be any credible plan to deal with Mati’s specific difficulties.
People were not warned to evacuate, nor were they informed which way they ought to head; paths leading to the sea were not clearly marked. Why was the chaotic street plan not corrected in the past, especially as Mati is a popular resort about 25 miles from Athens and has experienced a building boom in recent years? Unlike the government civil defense authorities, Athens Municipality carried out the successful evacuation of 620 children from a summer camp at Agios Andreas, next to Mati, after learning that a fire had broken out on Mount Pentelikon.
The flames were barely out when the magnitude of the disaster began to emerge, with the number of fatalities rising daily, passing even the record of major fires in the Peloponnese peninsula in August 2007. After each disaster, opposition parties accuse governments of incompetence, something that today’s ruling party, the radical left Syriza, did at the expense of the conservative New Democracy party in 2007. Now New Democracy officials are calling for government resignations, prompting heated clashes in the news media and on social media.
What neither government nor opposition parties acknowledge, however, is that many communities across the country may be death traps, wherever homes are built without permits, with town planners trying to catch up later. Instead of being demolished, illegal buildings are usually accommodated by law, as politicians fear losing votes by destroying people’s homes.
This, though, was not the case in 2007, when most victims died on forest roads, not in an urban maze, as they tried to escape fires near their villages. Some suggest that the past eight years of austerity have undermined Greece’s firefighting capacity, yet firefighters and pilots of water-dumping planes carry out heroic missions each summer. The problem lies in the lack of effective planning. Mati is not a community of illegal buildings — it is an established, up-market area with a vibrant volunteer ethos. The resort’s safety could have been a priority if government officials had pushed for this rather than letting problems fester.
The disaster at Mati has highlighted a tendency to postpone actions that would prevent trouble — especially if these solutions have a political cost — until catastrophe becomes inevitable. But it has also shown the solidarity with which Greeks deal with crisis, from the economic collapse and the influx of immigrants and refugees, to floods, earthquakes and fires — and the sympathy of friends abroad. Food, clothing, money and offers of shelter have poured into the area. There was a surge in blood donations.
Among the ashes on street corners, there is fresh water and food for dogs and cats. I saw a young man and woman walking with a bag of food and a cat basket; I offered some money to help them buy more food.
“No, thanks, we have more than enough,” the man said. Veterinary surgeons were treating stray and wounded animals for free, he added.
Cyprus, Spain and Bulgaria immediately offered aircraft, firefighters, medics and vehicles through the European Union’s Civil Protection Mechanism. Several foreign leaders called their Greek counterparts to express sympathy. Friends and colleagues who had not been in touch for months or years sent messages of concern to their Greek friends.
Clearly, with climate change and with urban areas expanding into dangerous terrain — in forests and on coastlines — more and more people will find themselves in harm’s way. But scores of people dying needlessly on the outskirts of a European capital looks more like carelessness than fate.
It was here that Lord Byron, who was to die in Greece’s war of independence, looked on the nearby plain of Marathon and dreamed that “Greece might still be free.” Neither sorrow, nor solidarity, nor political bickering should obscure the need to free people from the fear of their homes, roads and beach resorts becoming death traps. At Mati, something better will be built on the ashes. It is imperative that this is done wherever necessary, before Greece is again plunged into mourning.
Nikos Konstandaras (@nkonstan) is a columnist at the Greek newspaper Kathimerini.