‘The flames were as high as a six-story build­ing’

Sur­vivors and au­thor­i­ties look back on the deadly brush­fires that led to the loss of 36 hu­man lives in the Pelo­pon­nese a decade ago

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY YIANNIS PAPADOPOULOS

She re­mem­bers be­ing wo­ken up by the air-con­di­tion­ing unit com­ing to a sud­den halt, mid-si­esta. Then her sis­ter called, say­ing she could see from sev­eral kilo­me­ters away that the woods were on fire. One of the first things Ioanna Pappa did was throw the cook­ing gas can­is­ters she had in her house into a cis­tern with ir­ri­ga­tion wa­ter. “I felt my face burn­ing as soon as I went out­side and heard a sound like a hur­ri­cane, like a herd of gal­lop­ing horses,” she says. “I felt like I was burn­ing up even though I couldn’t see the fire yet. When I got closer, I saw that the flames were as high as a six-story build­ing.”

Pappa, some of her fam­ily and fel­lowvil­lagers at Smerna man­aged to get away. Her par­ents’ re­mains, how­ever, were found a few days later on the out­skirts of the vil­lage. They were among the 36 peo­ple killed in a rag­ing forest fire that struck the Pelo­pon­nesian pre­fec­ture of Ilia on Au­gust 24, 2007. Though the 10-year an­niver­sary of that tragic day is just around the corner, much about the in­ci­dent re­mains un­re­solved.

Com­pen­sa­tion for the fam­i­lies of the vic­tims is one such mat­ter. The law firm of An­to­nis Fousas rep­re­sents 22 fam­i­lies who have sued the Greek state separately for dam­ages. Three of the suits have been set­tled and the fam­i­lies are due to re­ceive their com­pen­sa­tion by the end of 2017 while an­other six are at the stage just be­fore be­ing set­tled. But the other 13 are still at the Ad­min­is­tra­tive Court of First In­stance in the town of Pyr­gos. A decade on and they’re yet to progress from the first stage.

Ju­di­cial night­mare

Pappa de­scribes the ju­di­cial process after the fires as a night­mare, es­pe­cially the crim­i­nal part, which was wrapped up in 2015 when the Supreme Court up­held a rul­ing by the Court of Ap­peals con­vict­ing the for­mer re­gional gover­nor of Ilia, Har­alam­bos Kafyras, and for­mer Zacharo mayor Pan­tazis Chronopou­los to 10 years in prison, which could be paid off rather than serv­ing their sen­tences. They were con­victed for fail­ing to take the nec­es­sary mea­sures to con­tain the fire’s toll. The same court also up­held the con­vic­tions of a fire war­den who did not act in a timely man­ner and the woman who owned the house where the fire started.

Ac­cord­ing to the Supreme Court’s 270-page ar­gu­ment, which has been seen by Kathimerini, er­rors and neg­li­gence oc­curred be­fore and dur­ing the fire. Un­til Au­gust 2007, the re­gion of Ilia com­prised forests, farm­land and res­i­den­tial ar­eas that were all jum­bled to­gether with­out any clear bound­aries sep­a­rat­ing them. Ac­cord­ing to judges, the forests had not un­der­gone any clear­ing or main­te­nance since 1980 and had been left to grow wild and im­pass­able, with a thick ground cover of dead brush, dry leaves and twigs – per­fect kin­dling. The sum­mer had also been par­tic­u­larly arid, with high tem­per­a­tures, low rain­fall and strong winds, all con­di­tions that pointed to the need for pre­ven­tive ac­tion.

“I re­mem­ber peo­ple clear­ing fire­breaks at some point in the past but then it stopped,” says Pappa. “And the road­sides were over­grown with weeds.”

The Supreme Court found that au­thor­i­ties had been neg­li­gent about clear­ing dead brush and the en­tire road net­work, par­tic­u­larly in the ar­eas of Smerna and Mount Lap­i­thas, which were es­pe­cially vul­ner­a­ble to fire and ex­tremely craggy and steep, mean­ing that not only were th­ese ar­eas hard for fire­fight­ers to reach, but the flames were able to climb the slopes. The judges also agreed that the public was not ad­e­quately in­formed of the dan­gers once the wild­fire started. Ac­cord­ing to the court rul­ing, pub­li­ca­tions in lo­cal pa­pers are not enough and peo­ple need to be in­formed ver­bally, with announcements over loud­speak­ers by mu­nic­i­pal of­fi­cials and po­lice pa­trols across the re­gion.

The fire started on Au­gust 24 in a house in the vil­lage of Palio­chori, where a 77-year-old woman was cook­ing a dish tra­di­tion­ally served at funer­als for her hus­band’s me­mo­rial. Be­side the gas cylin­der she used for cook­ing and left unat­tended, the woman had stored tins con­tain­ing 800 kilo­grams of olive oil as well as a sec­ond gas cylin­der. At the time, there were winds reach­ing 7 Beau­fort and the tem­per­a­ture was 41 de­grees Cel­sius. The woman’s fam­ily no­ticed the fire at 2.15 p.m. but their ef­forts to bring it un­der con­trol failed as the flames grew be­cause of all the flammable ma­te­rial in the kitchen and the blaze spread out­side the res­i­dence’s walls.

The ev­i­dence shows that 26 peo­ple died be­tween 3.45 and 4 p.m., the ma­jor­ity trapped in their ve­hi­cles on the coun­try road be­tween Zacharo and Artemida.

“The plans were ac­ti­vated in piece­meal man­ner and most of the agen­cies were in­formed from ran­dom and dis­parate sources, ap­proach­ing the in­ci­dent with­out any ex­change of views, co­or­di­na­tion, com­mu­ni­ca­tion, co­op­er­a­tion or plan­ning,” the judges ar­gued. They also noted that in­de­pen­dent ini­tia­tives by dif­fer­ent agen­cies on that day ef­fec­tively grid­locked the civil pro­tec­tion mech­a­nism.

The day after

Re­searchers in­ves­ti­gat­ing the area’s post-fire re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion three years after the events of Au­gust 2007 found ev­i­dence of a lack of co­or­di­na­tion, tan­gled red tape and de­lays in the dis­burse­ment of ap­proved fund­ing for the re­con­struc­tion or re­pair of dam­aged build­ings. Christina Pa­pa­geor­giou, a post­grad­u­ate ge­ol­ogy stu­dent, Aika­terini Chronopoulou-Sereli from the Agri­cul­tural Univer­sity of Athens and Gavriil Xan­thopou­los, a re­searcher at the Forest Re­search In­sti­tute of Athens, found in 2010 that the re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion ini­tia­tive was frag­mented and dis­or­ga­nized, and that mea­sures were “aimed at cov­er­ing im­me­di­ate needs and de­lay­ing a more se­ri­ous ap­proach to the is­sue.”

To­day, on the is­sue of preven­tion, Deputy Re­gional Gover­nor for Ilia Gior­gos Ge­or­giopou­los tells Kathimerini that fund­ing for clear­ing wood­land and cre­at­ing fire roads usu­ally reaches mu­nic­i­pal au­thor­i­ties after long de­lays, even in the mid­dle of the fire sea­son – and is not that much to be­gin with. He adds, how­ever, that the fire ser­vice is much more ex­pe­ri­enced now and that money has been set aside by the au­thor­ity to hold a ten­der for equip­ping the ser­vice with a mod­ern fleet of fire trucks.

In 2007, after the Ilia fires, a new in- sti­tu­tional frame­work (which was re­vised in 2014) was de­signed on how evac­u­a­tions are de­cided and co­or­di­nated dur­ing a wild­fire. Based on th­ese in­struc­tions, the de­ci­sion to evac­u­ate rests with the mu­nic­i­pal au­thor­ity or with the re­gional au­thor­ity if the dis­as­ter af­fects more than one mu­nic­i­pal unit.

In­for­ma­tion is key

Speak­ing to Kathimerini as the 10year an­niver­sary of the fire ap­proaches, Civil Pro­tec­tion Gen­eral Sec­re­tary Yiannis Ka­pakis stressed the im­por­tance of preven­tion and co­or­di­na­tion be­tween agen­cies in man­ag­ing nat­u­ral dis­as­ters. In­form­ing the public is also in­stru­men­tal, he said. “You need a sys­tem­atic and tar­geted in­for­ma­tion cam­paign. We are mov­ing in this di­rec­tion al­ready and have made sig­nif­i­cant progress,” he added.

Xan­thopou­los, of the Forest Re­search In­sti­tute of Athens, also be­lieves that prepa­ra­tion is key. On the in­sti­tute’s web­site (www.fria.gr), the sci­en­tists have cre­ated a form for eval­u­at­ing the fire risk of prop­er­ties near wood­land so that res­i­dents can take pre­ven­tive ac­tion such as clear­ing their own and nearby ar­eas of weeds and brush.

No warn­ing

Pappa says that no one had warned them of the dan­ger of a wild­fire 10 years ago or pro­vided them with any guid­ance dur­ing the blaze. “No one came to alert us. If my sis­ter hadn’t called, we would have burned to death in­side the house.”

She was asked to iden­tify the re­mains of her par­ents, Vas­silis and Vas­si­liki, at the Rio hos­pi­tal, but only DNA tests were able to pro­vide a pos­i­tive match. At the hos­pi­tal in the west­ern Greek town she met with psy­chol­o­gists who “tried to em­brace peo­ple,” but the vic­tims’ rel­a­tives were not pro­vided with any coun­sel­ing or sup­port af­ter­ward.

Pappa is not sure whether a hug would have helped. “There was so much anger, so much pain, rage and even ha­tred,” she says. “Time may make some of the pain go away, but every Au­gust 24, it comes back.”

Mis­takes and over­sights re­sulted in the deadly fire that claimed 36 lives, but many as­pects of the case still re­main un­re­solved.

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