Tuesday 24 July 2018

A Note on the Fires in Athens

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Yesterday, on Monday, 23 July, two major fires broke out in or near the Attica region. The first was at Kineta, near Megara. This fire broke out in a forested area along the national road.

The second fire or fires broke out along the shoreline to the north east of the capital, in the area between Rafina and Mati. This is a heavily-forested urban area, where houses, apartments and hotels are located between the shoreline and national road, and above the national road on the foothills of Mount Penteli.

A few items of interest:

a.     High winds and dry weather: The winds yesterday were exceptionally strong, with wind gusts of up to 85 km/hour reported. These were seen first hand even in the centre of Athens. These are absolutely fatal conditions for a fire.

b.     In the Rafina / Mati area, winds change direction rapidly due to a number of geomorphological, marine and climactic factors.

c.     While I do not know the Kineta area, I am very familiar with the entire stretch between Rafina and Schinias. This area is characterized by very narrow streets and is totally covered with pine trees. There are also a number of steep valleys or gulleys that often block road access and are conduits for flames.

Photos taken in the aftermath of the fires show burnt cars blocking roads. We can assume that as people fled, traffic barriers and heavy smoke would have impeded their flight. As the wind changed, the fire would have moved more rapidly than a running person, leaping from pine tree to pine tree. The trees would have ignited immediately, together with the entire ground which is usually covered with pine needles and other dessicated plants and shrubs.

According to Kathimerini and Skai News, one group of 26 people were fleeing towards the sea when they were stopped by flames approximately 30 meters from the waves. I can only imagine the terror induced by the heat, the high smoke and the panic. All 26 died.

During the fire, and in the aftermath, two theories broke out:

a.     The first was that this was an act of arson by propery developers, who want to burn the land in order to build on it. I can’t see this happening in Rafina – Mati. This area is within an urban area, so the practice of burning and then squatting would not normally be a motivating factor. I presume that enough of the land plots are registered in the national cadaster. I can also attest that every serious buyer today looks very carefully at whether a land plot falls in the forest area or not, and makes their decisions accordingly. Finally, I remind everyone that Greece remains in a deep economic depression despite recent headline macro numbers, and I find it improbable that new building is taking place given the vast number of unsold properties on the market.  

b.     The second was that this was an act of arson by a specific foreign country which wanted revenge over a recent diplomatic incident. I give very little credence to this scenario.

I do not know if arson or politics were involved. But I do know that every year, fires are started everywhere in Greece by drivers throwing lit cigarette butts out their car window. I have witnessed this happening, and I have also witnessed the aftermath.

I have also heard many voices blaming the state, and its lack of preparedness. Normally, I am one of the harshest critics, as this blog attests. However, I can also state that this terrain is simply very difficult, if not impossible, to protect against fire. Both streets and lots are literally covered with pine trees. The lots and streets are small, and narrow, so it is very easy for fire to leap from tree to tree, which it does with alarming speed.

Together with the high smoke, the wind speed and the wind direction change, I am not sure any fire brigade could have coped with this event. And unless residents were prepared to cut down pine trees (which are cherished for their shade), I don’t see how effective fire breaks could have been prepared, absent razing built up areas to create 30- or 50-meter wide fire breaks.

While we could take further measures to mitigate the risks of fires of this kind, we should be under no illusions as to the social cost and cohesion needed to do so. Even Japan, which has invested hundreds of billions in disaster preparedness, has not been able to perfectly plan for every disaster. And Greece is far from being Japan in terms of social and government planning. 

There is aerial footage of the burnt areas here:

The death toll currently ranks at above 50, while many media are claiming above 60. It is a human tragedy which is incomprehensible in our current times. It is a tragedy which sadly occurs every summer, though not in these numbers. The last time the toll was so high was in 2007.

I would like to respectfully suggest that we resist the natural impulse to rage at unknown figures, or the state, or engage in conspiracy theories until further information comes to light.

In the meantime, the Hellenic Red Cross is collecting donations for the survivors. I hope you will join me in making a donation to them.

© Philip Ammerman, 2018