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Greeks pull together in the face of fire



I love the summers in Greece, but I also fear them. The positive balance of the clear heat, with long days at the beach followed by balmy evenings, often tips into the negative and dangerous: away from the sea, the parched landscape is regularly scoured by strong and searing winds that bring with them the threat of fire.

xxxxxSuch was the case in 2007, the year my youngest son became a fire-fighter. That summer it seemed that the whole of Greece was burning, with the Peloponnese being particularly hard hit. Eighty-four people died in Greece's worst recorded fire season.

Now that season has been surpassed. In 2007, the fires spread themselves over most of a week, but in the most recent fires at a coastal resort town east of Athens complete devastation occurred in less than 48 hours. The death toll currently stands at 88, but many people are still unaccounted for, while approximately 200 people are in hospital, suffering from burns and/or smoke inhalation.

And some people have given up. A tweet accompanying a picture of a blackened house and ruined garden said, 'There is nothing to see except sheets of iron, ashes, and broken glass. For me there is nothing left: I have gone to live abroad with my son.'

My own son is safe. He was on standby for a day, and since then has been on duty at his station: for 36 hours. But at least he was not out there, battling. Firefighters are first responders in Greece, and have terrible experiences at the scenes of accidents, as well as having to risk their lives when fires break out. When this happens they are often in danger for 80 straight hours.

And for all this risk and hard work they are paid very little. A permanent fireman starts on a monthly salary of $1500 gross per month. But the service also takes on seasonal summer workers who face continual hazard, and receive a monthly net payment of only $1027. Try keeping a family on either of those sums.

Inevitably the question about this latest disaster is 'Why?' And there are many answers, or attempted answers. Citizens are bitterly blaming the government at present, but politicians, in time-honoured fashion, are shifting the blame, and pointing out the unregulated nature of the building that has taken place in what used to be a forest.


"Blood bank offices are crammed full of people wanting to donate; volunteers have rushed to give time, money, food and clothes to those in need."


Lack of planning meant that people trying to flee the fires had no easy or obvious way to get down to the beach, so that many quite simply lost their way, and their lives, in the darkness and prevailing confusion. Commentators have pointed out the lack of an emergency evacuation plan. And it has to be admitted that there is not much care taken to fire-proof property.

Another answer concerns nature itself: Greece is a fire-prone country that has terrain difficult to manage when fire breaks out. And climate change has meant an extremely hot summer, with a very strong meltemi, the trade wind that blows in the Aegean from May to September.

Added to this is the inescapable fact that the austerity forced on Greece during the last seven years (at least) has meant a reduced fire service, with not enough firefighters and no money to buy the latest equipment. Hence Greece's request for international aid. Then there is the dark shadow of suspected arson.

In the midst of this pain and grief, however, it is heartening to see the reaction of the Greek public. Blood bank offices are crammed full of people wanting to donate; volunteers have rushed to give time, money, food and clothes to those in need. The Army has moved swiftly to set up temporary camps for the homeless. Melbourne's Neos Kosmos newspaper, the oldest Greek newspaper in Australia, has informed its wide readership of ways in which it can help.

Decades ago, my parents were friends of the Greek couple who lived opposite. One bad day a fire broke out in Con and Angela's house. No lives were lost, but extensive damage was done. My parents were amazed to observe the amount of help that was forthcoming from the couple's many friends. 'They really pull together, those Greeks, in times of trouble,' said my father. How right he was.



Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, Greece, bushfires



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Existing comments

It was devastating to hear the news of the fires in Greece. Having visited Greece a number of times, I have noticed the similarities between Australia and your home Gillian. The climate and the often harsh terrain being two. When lives are lost blame is often portioned out and it will be necessary to reflect on ways to minimise this risk. Our two countries have much in common and so our thoughts are with our Greek friends at this difficult time.

Pam | 30 July 2018  

What a truely moving article..

Stathis T | 30 July 2018  

It has been terrible to read of the loss of life and the devastation the wild fires cause and now California and Canada are suffering . The causes are known but it is solutions that are difficult to find.Surely no one can now doubt that climate change exists and is a terrible danger. Thank you for your thoughts.

Maggie | 31 July 2018  

We in Australia are also under threat to life and land from wildfires, as is well known. But now that threat has been compounded, it would seem, and not only by the effects of climate change. With more than 60 per cent of Queensland drought-declared, according to media reports, the proposed Adani coal mine has been offered unlimited water, free of charge, for the duration of its operations, i.e. billions and billions of litres. We residents, of course, have always had to pay for our water consumption. If this environmentally ruinous scheme were to proceed, and supposing there were anything left to burn in such circumstances, would we have any water to put out the fires? I feel for the plight of the Greek people who have suffered so grievously in the recent fires, and I also fear for the plight of our own lands that could be rendered waterless and laid waste by the money-gouging activities of an unscrupulous investor, if irresponsible authorities were to allow this plan to proceed.

Jena Woodhouse | 31 July 2018  

The Greek Club at South Brisbane is holding a Dinner for Greece on Friday 10th August, β€œAll profits donated in aid of Attica wildfire victims.” https://www.thegreekclub.com.au/

Ross Howard | 31 July 2018  

Two reactions that seem universal. The way communities help each other when times are tough is wonderful to see. The other reaction of looking for people to blame is not so nice. We saw exactly the same things here in Victoria after the Ash Wednesday fires and again after the Black Saturday fires. The second is a natural as the first. It's just that people are trying to find out what went wrong but are just attacking the problem in the wrong way.

Stephen | 31 July 2018  

It is heartening to know of support from the diaspora for the victims of the Greek fires. I hope South Brisbane's dinner is a huge success!

Gillian | 01 August 2018  

I have already sent a response - clearly eaten up in the ether...but only my words - not my life and property by a wildfire of the Mati magnitude. Nor of this as others here note - and you yourself acknowledge, Gillian - of the ravages such bushfires wreak on this landscape - no longer cared for by the traditional fire-farming techniques of Indigenous peoples - except in northern regions of the country where traditional methods still apply - as I have seen in Kakudu for example. And it is true that communities often separated by divisive politics or other self-interested attention do come together at such terrible times. I am reminded of a report I read from noted Australian journalist Murray Sayle (1926-2010) who spent nearly 30 years living in a little Japanese village (Aikawa) from around 1975 onwards - and who wrote movingly of the way the villagers rallied around to help him and his family when their family home was suddenly and totally destroyed by a house-fire. This is the human dimension we do not always hear about. You touched, Gillian, on the courage of firefighters and the lack of funding and lack of civic planning making their lives and conditions so dangerous! May this be a proper wake-up call!

Jim KABLE | 02 August 2018  

The world is full of problems and emergencies, such as the bushfires in Greece and North America. It would be easy to become cynical and jaded but it is the actions of ordinary people in situations such as this or the London bombings that gives me hope.

Edward Fido | 02 August 2018  

As always, Gillian, your thoughtful comments about events in Greece touch me deeply. I am also moved by readers' responses to your article on the horrific fires in our beloved Greece. All I can add is that, while 80 (or more) people have lost their lives in the most unspeakable way, there will be thousands more – family and friends – whose lives will be irrevocably marked by this tragedy.

Helen Nickas | 02 August 2018  

Excellent article. I lived 37 years in Greece and know what everybody is up against. It is all very sad.

Elena Christe | 02 August 2018  

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