Lessons from Greek and Australian 'quench-fires'

Smokey, Flickr image by chuciI suppose, while having my three sons, fortunately not all at once, I pushed the button labelled lawyer/doctor/architect/bank teller/safe occupation like mad. To no avail, of course, for they are all action men, and Alexander, my youngest, is a fire-fighter.

At the very time that the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission was in the Australian news, Greece was battling huge wildfires. Again. Last week, exactly two years had passed since 76 people died in the Peloponnese, which in August 2007 blazed inexorably from end to end. This time Attica had its turn, with fires raging on the outskirts of Athens. When the conflagration was at its worst, ash was falling on the island of Kythera, two hundred miles away.

In 2007 Alexander, then newly trained, had a narrow squeak while defending a village in the Taygetus mountains. And so my heart sank when I learned of the Attica outbreak. It was 36 hours before I received word that he was all right after fighting on the dangerous site of Pendeli for 24 hours. How can anyone keep going for 24 hours? I asked his older brother, my Army son. Rotation of duties, was the laconic reply.

The recipe for Greek summer disaster had remained the same: extreme heat, gale-force winds, and not enough care. On the day in 2007 that Kalamata's mountain was invisible under a pall of smoke, I saw three people throw lighted cigarettes to the ground. Greece does not have a total fire ban policy; nor does it have an orchestrated strategy for fire prevention: scattered piles of litter and uncleared tinder-dry expanses of land are simply features of summer here.

And there is certainly no equivalent of a Royal Commission.

The fires in Attica stretched nearly 50 km NE of Athens and, despite the efforts of 2000 Greek fire-fighters, soldiers and volunteers, and water-bombing aeroplanes sent by France, Italy and Cyprus, nearly 100 square km of forest and brush were burned out: an environmental disaster. Two hundred houses were destroyed, but by some miracle, such grace, nobody died.

Australia and Greece resemble each other in many ways, which helps explain the appeal that Greece has for travellers from Down Under: both countries have a very different look from the stitched, neat, over-embroidered and over-organised one that much of Northern Europe wears and bears.

But when it comes to the incidence of fire and the coping with it, there are some differences. There are many eucalypts in Greece, for example, but the fire areas usually consist of forest and maquis. And while the occasional act of arson takes place in Australia, it is usually agreed that such acts are those of disturbed persons. But here it often happens, and it is common knowledge, that fires are started by unscrupulous would-be property developers.

And in Australia it would be beggaring belief to see TV film of black-clad, white-masked, and very elderly nuns directing feeble garden hoses against the fires threatening their convents. But that is what happened last week; in-between times said nuns tried to ensure that sacred relics and treasured ossuaries were made safe. Blameless lives, being sorely tested.

Blame. There's a lot of it about in every culture: humans do not want to believe that some things simply happen. I noticed, while reading about the Royal Commission, that the Victorian authorities have been criticised for shortcomings in communication, and for the inability of the centralised fire control to cope with the fast-moving situation as it developed on Black Saturday. Then there was the difficult matter of keeping the public informed while avoiding panic.

The point was made that some properties are indefensible; this is the case in Greece, too, although ancestral imperatives rather than lifestyle ones often decide the matter of settlement.

Alexander went off duty, and then moaned about inefficiency and lack of organisation. He was disappointed. But I suppose disappointment about desperate endeavour is part of hindsight, really, for there is always the thought that more and better efforts could have been made. But surely every fire is unique? Thus it makes specific demands on those fighting it, from which demands, it is hoped, experts and others can learn.

While fires rage, fighters are the most important people in their country. In 1940 Britain had Spitfires, wrote a friend during my time of worry. Now Greece has Alexander and his mates: Quenchfires.

Australian and Greek Quenchfires did their best.

Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an Australian writer who has been based in Greece for 28 years. She has had eight books published. Her most recent is No Time For Dances.

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, australia, greece, victorian bushfires, Royal Commission, Attica, quenchfire



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Existing comments

Excellent writing. The writer touches on some very valid issues for those of us who live in Greece. I am curious to know why it's so difficult to track down her books about Greece.
Godfrey Holdsworth | 02 September 2009

to Geoffrey Holdsworth - Amazon online book suppliers may be able to assist you re obtaining Gillian's books, though obviously it would be better to have them more visible in Greece itself.

In response to the article: having had four brothers all fighting in a severe bushfire in Australia back in the 70s, I can partially understand her fear for her son, while admiring his willingness to take on such dangerous work.

Her comment that 'some properties are indefensible' is a crucial one for Australians. We need to change our attitudes. Although I have increased my firebreaks and initiated other preventative measures, my decision has changed. I will leave, and leave early. I am not going to stay and fight as I had previously intended. I am in an area of thick bushland and last summer showed what can happen. We need to consider mandatory evacuation. I know many Australians will object but lives are more important than buildings.

In the USA, evacuation is the norm. They lost approximately 50% more houses in a bush-fire in California last year, but only 10 lives, compared to our 114.

Some properties are indefensible.
Some areas are indefensible.

We need to accept that. If we choose to live in those places we must accept that WE have taken that risk. Keep copies of photographs and important documents somewhere safer, and be prepared to leave.

The lives of fire-fighters are put at risk trying to defend lives and properties in thick bushland. We should not endanger lives, either ours or those of others, because of our choices.
Gabrielle Bridges | 11 September 2009

Mr Holdsworth. I'm really happy I saw your name on here. I was one of your students at Pierce College back in 1998-1999 if I recall correctly. Besides being my all time favorite teacher, you inspired me into loving English language and gave me courage to write about so many wonderful subjects. I wanted to sincerely thank you, for the most amazing English Class I ever experienced. P.S I still remember how I was blushing when you read in front of all the class my essay about the Girl with Red Hair and Green eyes, especially when everyone found out I wrote it. I would be very happy if I could have your contact details to let you know of what happened in my life up until now.
Yiannis Chrysanthakopoulos - Skanavis | 05 February 2012

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