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The 2007 Fires in Greece

2007 fires in GreeceI was planning to write about how much fun I had during my last few days in Athens, despite the heat, but by now you probably have heard that half the forests in Greece are burning or burnt and many people have died in their villages which have been destroyed. It is a national catastrophe. People are convinced it is arson, caused by greedy developers or angry anarchists who want to destroy Greece. There is probably a little of each. But in a country that has been parched by the summer heat with a population where it seems like everyone smokes and most people don't pay much attention to where they flick their butts, especially when they are driving, it is amazing that the forests have lasted this long. Yeah, I know it is a little opportunistic to take this national calamity and use it to vent against cigarette smokers. But the government will use this to find enemies, terrorists and some kind of external cause so they can rally the people with slogans while they continue to do nothing. But forests in a dry country where everyone smokes won't last long. Maybe it will turn out to be an organized attack by disaffected youth, frustrated by the lack of hope and a future that looks bleak in a country where it is not what you know or how smart you are or how talented you are, but who you know. Maybe it will be proven to be caused by ruthless developers who are not allowed to build in forests and so they just burn them down. But so far it seems the biggest fire was caused by some old woman who made a fire in her yard that got out of control. I am willing to bet that more than one of these other fires was caused by a cigarette and not one thrown into a petrol can. Just carelessly tossed out the window of a car or truck. But all of them? Unlikely.

Fires in Greece 2007On Friday night we went to dinner at The Butcher Shop, a psistaria (grill house) in Gazi, the neighborhood that surrounds the old gas works of the city. Kostas from Byzantino Jewelry was going to join us for his last night. His partner Giorgos was in their village Neohori with his family. Kosta's family was there as well but someone had to mind the store. Kostas and Giorgos often talk about their village in terms that border on worship. They love their hometown. Athens, where they have been working for twenty years is something they put up with until they finally make enough money to retire and return to Neohori, on the sea in the Western Peloponessos, for good. But Kostas could not make it to Gazi. There was a fire near his village and he was worried about his family. He apologized for not being able to come on our last night.

Saturday morning we woke up, had breakfast and took a taxi to the airport. As I was about to board the jet my cell phone rang. It was Giorgos. He was speaking quickly and there was commotion in the background. His wife and children and all the women and children of Neohori were on the beach with their cars. Giorgos and the men were fighting the fire. "I have to go now because the fire is in the village and I have to throw water." He said. But I wanted to say to you Kalo taxidi." He said goodbye. I didn't think about it at first but then I realized that there he was fighting to save his family home and his village, and he took a moment to call and wish me bon voyage. It was one of those moments of illumination that made me realize why I keep going back to Greece. Because even in the midst of personal tragedy Giorgos remembered I was leaving and took a moment to say goodbye.

Greek firesWe got on our flight to the states and as I looked out the window of the plane I really had no idea that this would be one of the worst days in modern Greek history. I just wanted it to be a quick and painless flight. But coming over Hymetos was a dark cloud that had to be a fire, and sure enough turned out to be. As we gained altitude I could see one huge fire over the island of Evia. The smoke was blowing south over Marathon. When we were high enough to take off our seatbelts Andrea crossed to the other side of the plane to see the Peloponessos which was covered in thick smoke, like mushroom clouds. She told me to go look but all I could see was a layer of thick gray smoke. We passed another fire near Agrinion, its smoke drifting towards Lefkada.

We did not realize the extent of the fires until we got to the USA and it was headline news. George from Fantasy sent me an e-mail asking for help composing an e-mail to reassure travelers that it was safe to come to Greece and their islands holiday posed no threat to them. Its true. There are no forests to burn on Mykonos, Santorini, Sifnos and most of the other Cyclades and those islands that do have forests or what's left of forests, like Chios and Lesvos, these are usually high in the mountains and far from the beaches and tourist areas.

Mount Tagetos fire, PeloponessosSo what do I think? Just now the BBC talked about forces that wanted to see Karamanlis fail in his efforts to clean up Greek politics and make the country more like the rest of Europe rather than the middle east with its corruption and greed. They mentioned the fact that Greece is the only country in Europe without a forestry registry and that developers are licking their lips at the prospect of building on all these former forests. Not to accuse them of starting the fires but when you investigate a crime you look at those who have the most to gain and they are right at the top of the list. But they have company. The criminals who have controlled many of the Greek politicians for years, have an interest in things staying the way they are, as a friend once described as "corrupt to the core". The anarchists want anarchy and the destruction of the Greek state so they are right up there with the list of usual suspects. And then there is the careless Greek smoker who will walk through a ship's garage with the smell of spilled gasoline filling the air, oblivious to the signs that say 'no smoking', a cigarette dangling from his lips.

For sure its a disaster. A catastrophe. For the forests and the people who have lost loved ones, their homes or their entire village. Its Greece's 9-11. Its also a wake-up call. In a few days the fires will be out and then the discussions will begin on how to replant the forests and how to make sure this never happens again. If its anything like the past the talking heads will argue on television and the politicians will make speeches and nothing will get done. But if Greece wants to break with the past then we don't need politicians. We need leaders. Are there any?

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