© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A volunteer reacts as a wildfire burns in the village of Galatsona, on the island of Evia, Greece, August 9, 2021. REUTERS/Stelios Misinas/File Photo
By Lefteris Papadimas
ATHENS (Reuters) – As flames threatened to engulf the home of Stelios Kokkinelis in a suburb north of Athens at the weekend and the emergency services failed to respond to his calls for help, he decided to ignore an evacuation order and take matters into his own hands.
“I hid so they wouldn’t find me. I moved to the other side of my house and started to fight the fire with my own water, otherwise it would have gone,” said the 82-year-old, who built his three-storey house in the wooded area of Varympompi when he returned home after 25 years in South Africa.
His daughter Eirini was in tears as she told of how she fled without knowing what had happened to her father or whether the home she and her family shared with him would be destroyed.
“If my father had not stayed, our house would have burned down,” she said. “The fire service was nowhere. Fortunately there were volunteers,” she said. “I feel anger, nothing else.”
Photos shared on social media of exhausted firefighters asleep on the ground, still dressed in the smoke-stained uniforms they wore to fight the flames showed the strain the emergency services are under.
Almost 1,000 firefighters, nine aircraft and 200 vehicles have been sent to Greece from other European countries to help battle devastating wildfires near Athens and elsewhere.
But as reinforcements arrived, some Greeks have asked why local fire services needed help.
Television reports and social media have featured angry commentary about the lack of firefighters to tackle blazes, mixed with pointed observations about the disproportionate number of police.
“Thanks to all the countries who have given firefighting assistance,” said one commenter on Twitter. “If you ever need cops, let us know”.
After a decade of austerity that cut into public services, Greek firefighting services are badly weakened, said Dimitris Stathopoulos, head of Greece’s firefighters federation. He said 5,000 firefighters needed to be hired immediately.
“We are constantly on alert,” Stathopoulos said. “In March, we had 10 days of floods, then snow. In Varympompi and in Evia, we’re going to be there for 20 days with 500 firefighters because these are dangerous times.”
Temperatures were so high last week in the early stages of the Varympompi fire, that water dropped by fire-fighting aircraft evaporated before reaching the flames, he added.
GOVERNMENT DEFENDS SPENDING RECORD
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said last week there would be a time for “criticism and self-criticism” over the way authorities responded to the fires, which have coincided with a string of extreme weather events across the world.
The United Nations panel on climate change warned on Monday that the world was dangerously close to runaway global warming.
In June, the Civil Protection Ministry announced a 1.7 billion-euro fire protection plan, funded mostly by the European Investment Bank and European Union, which includes replacing ageing Canadair fire-fighting aircraft and fire service hirings.
On Saturday, Akis Skertsos, a senior government official, responded to criticism that the government had not done enough, posting figures showing Greece well ahead of other Mediterranean countries for the number of water-bombing aircraft.
He said spending on civil protection measures had increased by 56% in the past three years, with permanent and seasonal firefighter numbers up 16% to 14,736. Greece now had 74 firefighting aircraft now compared with 51 in 2018.
The wildfires have so far not caused nearly as many casualties as the blazes three years ago that killed more than 100 people, destroying public confidence in the leftwing Syriza government which lost the subsequent elections.
Although criticism by the opposition has been muted so far, public anger could continue long after the flames die down.
“The government should resign as soon as possible. They did absolutely nothing, zero,” said Makis Ladogiannakis, a 77-year-old resident of Pefki, in northern Evia, where a ferry waited to evacuate more people by sea.
“Everyone is desperate. Everyone is disappointed.”