A paradise turned into a desert of ashes. A traditional Mediterranean way of life, based on honey, milk and oil, pine resin, figs and olives is in danger of extinction. The north of the Greek island of Euboea, the second largest in the country —175 kilometers from north to south and 45 kilometers at its widest part— is just beginning to emerge from the nightmare, 12 days after the uncontrollable fire devours forests, crops, houses and businesses, on 3 August . “There were no deaths, but thousands of dead were left alive,” says Giorgos Tsapourniotis, mayor of Limni, a village of 1,200 inhabitants in whose municipality the fire broke out that Tuesday at around 3 pm. “There was a very strong wind and it spread very fast. In 30 minutes it covered a 3 km front. 300 houses burned, completely reduced to ashes. There are another 800 damaged and 40 companies destroyed. Around 36,000 hectares were burned”. The mayor responds while giving orders and responds to the residents by cell phone, sitting in the village square. “We experienced incredible chaos. We didn’t get any help and when she arrived it was too late.”
“It wasn’t just the place that burned. Our future burned down,” says Amalía Bloukidi, who runs the small, 16-room Baterí hotel that her family opened in 1998. “This Tuesday the hotel was full, many guests were foreigners. We had no help other than two passes from two fumigating planes to release water and there was no plan other than evacuation”. Amalía was able to keep a cool head and, as the flames approached the hotel from two sides, she gave the guests 10 minutes to get their belongings and got them out quickly. Four rooms were completely lost. Also its garden of medicinal and aromatic plants, one of the island’s jewels. “I don’t expect anything from the authorities and I don’t want to politicize the case, but I blame those who took the decisions for the absolute lack of coordination, bureaucracy, mistakes and indifference. We were condemned to a slow death”, he adds. The smell of smoke can still be noticed and the blackened beams and walls bear witness not only to the tragedy, but also to the uncertain future that looms over the north of Euboea. “The tourist season is already lost and the next few years probably too. The young people will leave and I, at 56, even though I have energy, where am I going? Who will hire me at this age?”. Faced with the indifference and lack of resources provided by the authorities —the island’s meager capacities were fatally sent to the Athens region to fight the fires there— young people from Limni and neighboring towns took the initiative to fight the fire, supplying the absence of the State.
Iannis Triantafyllou, an air conditioning technician in his 30s, organized a fire brigade with a dozen friends, mobilizing all the young people in the region through social media. “There were no firefighters. Years ago, when another fire took place, there were 75”, he says. They quickly evacuated as many as they could, including his own wife and two daughters, aged 8 and 5, who were boarded on a raft with 2,000 other people, including locals and tourists. “I thought I would be the last to leave. The biggest complaint we have is that we couldn’t save any more houses. We are proud of our forest and we want it back.”
It is too early to do a damage assessment. The calculation is that 50,000 people out of the island’s 210,000 inhabitants have been affected — electricity and internet services are now being restored — and the Athens government, led by Conservative Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, has opened an official investigation, but no one or hardly anyone trusts the results. But the fires in the north of Euboea, the ancient Negroponte —as the Venetians called it during their domination of the island between the 13th and 15th centuries— exposed, without retouching, the neglect suffered for more than a decade. In those years, “the banks were closed, the Finance office, the public health service clinics and the nearest hospital is in Calcis, the capital, 80 kilometers from Limni”, says retired journalist Pambos Hatzilambis, a resident of the region 15 years ago. The fire came to mark the marginalization that its inhabitants feel. “We are a forgotten island. After the economic crisis came the pandemic and now the fires. We had started operating again in June and July and the tourist season is already over. I fear that the young people will leave the island”, comments Gianna Anifioti, representative of the local Chamber of Commerce and owner of a typical restaurant.
Touring the island, very mountainous and until a few days ago also very green, is now traveling through a landscape of black trunks and roots, of pine, olive and charred fig trees, of valleys of ash. Smoke still comes out of some trees, such as an olive tree in the village of Rovies, to which Vangelis Marko, a 67-year-old peasant, attributes an antiquity of more than 2,000 years. “We who were born and raised here no longer recognize anything,” he says with stoic sadness, as he shows off his burnt olive trees.
60 kilometers further north, the young mayor of Istiea, Iannis Kontzias, says: “The village is in danger of disappearing. There were times when I felt abandoned. No central government officials came. The economy is destroyed. It is too early to make an economic assessment, but unemployment will approach 100%. It will be very difficult for the young people to stay”. At least the tragedy brought a new spirit of solidarity. “The local feuds are over and the residents are more united than ever. This union is what will keep us on our feet to fight for the future”, says Kontzias, aware that tragedy could happen again and that climate change always comes back to haunt.
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