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Abandoned to the flames on Evia

August 14, 2021

After the devastating fires that have ravaged Greece's second-largest island, many of its residents are angry with their government. They believe the disaster could have been prevented.

Burnt-out houses on Evia
The fires have destroyed large areas in the north of EviaImage: Florian Schmitz/DW

The sun loungers have been abandoned in the seaside resort of Rovies. In parts of this village, the flames blazed their way right down to the beach. Just a few days ago, Evia's hills were covered in thousands of its characteristic pine trees. All that's left of them now are black stumps, split open by the heat, standing in a blanket of white ash.

The ground underfoot is still warm. Here and there, blackened holes are still smoking. Mid-August is the high season for holidaymakers in Greece — including here, on the country's second-largest island. But after the fires, the majority of paying guests have left.

Blue beach chairs on an empty beach
An empty beach on Evia after the fire: Most paying guests have left Image: Florian Schmitz/DW

A young Israeli family has just arrived on the island. "We'd already booked," they explain. "A friend of ours owns a house here. But it's burnt down, so now we're staying in a hotel." Smoke from the fires hangs in the air, they say, but the food is good and the sea is still beautiful.

Nikos Tekinarglis runs a bar on the beach. "We mustn't despair," he says, through gritted teeth. Nonetheless: "It's an economic disaster for everyone here whose livelihood depends on the forest or on tourism."

Tekinarglis accuses the Greek government of abandoning the island and leaving it to fend for itself. However, he takes heart from the way the islanders have stuck together: "I was moved to see all the young people pitching in and helping."

Facing financial ruin

Eleni Alexandridi's language school has burned down. While she's talking to us, a little cat comes over to sit beside her.

"She used to come to see us in the school, and she doesn't understand now that the building's become uninhabitable," Alexandridi explains. She struggles to maintain her composure. Now in her late forties, Alexandridi is facing financial ruin. Her entire livelihood has been destroyed.

And yet fires are not an infrequent event on Evia: In the past, they always put them out themselves, she says. This time, though, the government's only concern was to evacuate people.

Eleni Alexandrini
Eleni Alexandridi has lost everything in the fires Image: Marek Neumann-Schönwetter

Alexandridi feels abandoned by her government. In her view, the crisis management strategy adopted by Athens was an absolute disaster. "The mistake they made was to simply evacuate the villages in order to avoid casualties," she says. They didn't have anything like enough resources to extinguish the fires, she says, and what they did have they concentrated on Athens.

Alexandridi says she did not see any firefighters taking part in efforts to fight the flames on Evia. "The only people helping were volunteers from our island," she reports. "Where anything has been saved, they were the ones who did it. It was three days before I saw a firefighter. I asked him, 'Where have you been?' He replied, 'Don't ask.'"

Loss of faith

Many islanders have stories like this. A man from the neighboring town of Limni describes people using a hose to try and extinguish a burning pine tree, to stop it from falling onto their house. "The fire department just turned off the water," he reports.

Dimitris Giannakoulas, a restaurant owner, no longer believes a word the government says. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has promised swift, unbureaucratic compensation for the victims, but Giannakoulas sees these as empty words. "We're very disappointed," he says.

Restaurant owner Dimitris Giannakoulas
Restaurant owner Dimitris Giannakoulas has lost faith in the governmentImage: Marek Neumann-Schönwetter

Giannakoulas refused to be evacuated. Instead, he and the other men from his village stayed and fought the flames. "The only reason our houses are still standing is that there were no strong winds," he explains.

Request came too late

The full extent of the disaster can be seen along the road leading up from the coast and over the mountains. Scorched earth as far as the eye can see. Fallen trees and power poles block the way. The last big fires were still raging around the village of Istiaia at the northern tip of the island until the early hours of Tuesday.

A burnt-out van in the north of Evia
Help came to late to prevent widespread devastationImage: Florian Schmitz/DW

Thodoris, a young mechanic, is standing in the village square with two of his friends. They describe how, for days, they observed the fire department doing nothing to fight the fires. No planes were sent, either. "They said on TV that planes couldn't fly because the winds were too strong. But there was no wind," says Thodoris. He corroborates this with a video showing columns of smoke hanging motionless in the air.

Help from Poland

It's more or less a miracle that Thodoris's village is still standing. "There was no organized response whatsoever," he says. "We took the fire department's hoses and put the fires out ourselves." Now, 143 firefighters and 46 modern fire engines from Poland stand in the parking lot. They arrived on Tuesday, when most of the fires were already extinguished.

Rafal Solowin, an officer with the Polish brigade sent to provide assistance, says they came as fast as they could. "As soon as Greece triggered the EU Civil Protection Mechanism, we left immediately. It took us three days to get here."

To the people of Evia, this is incomprehensible. Why did their government wait so long to call for help, when it was already struggling to cope with the fires in Athens?

Rafal Solowin, a Polish firefighter, speaking into a DW microphone
Polish firefighter Rafal Solowin is taking part in the international relief effort for Evia Image: Marek Neumann-Schönwetter

The system is broken

Experts have been criticizing Greece's inadequate fire safety system for many years. Things were finally meant to change after the devastating fire in Mati in 2018, which killed 102 people. However, it was only in June of this year that the government announced it would invest €1.76 billion ($2.08 billion) in fire safety — just as the dangerous summer months began.

A burnt-out landscape on Evia
Burnt to ashes: The pine trees that characterized the island Image: Florian Schmitz/DW

Constantinos Liarikos, the head of development at WWF Greece, says this was a preventable disaster. "It has everything to do with the fact that, in these conditions of climate crisis, not enough is being done on prevention," he explains. "The government — like all the governments of recent decades — refuses to invest in preparing authorities, volunteers and citizens."

Liarikos says Athens was well aware of the existing shortcomings. A committee drew up a clear schedule for improvements after the Mati disaster — but was ignored. "In the years that have followed, nothing has been done, just as nothing was done after the fire disaster in 2007. Expert assessments are simply thrown in the trash," says Liarikos.

Now, after the terrible fires in Athens, the Peloponnese and Evia, the government is promising to reform Greece's entire civil defense system. It says it will invest €500 million in reconstruction and reforestation. The people of Evia, however, have little faith in its words. The government will have to take substantial action before they will feel able to look to the future with confidence — a future in which extreme temperatures and forest fires will probably be a regular occurrence.

This article has been translated from German.

Greece wildfires: Devastation on Evia island


Portrait of a man with brown hair and a beard
Florian Schmitz Reporter with a focus on Greece