Greece and the Politics of Fire

by Yannis-Orestis Papadimitriou

21 August 2018

Carl Osbourn, Wikimedia Commons

As prosecutors launch an inquiry into the 96 lives lost in the fires that swept through resorts east of Athens, Yannis-Orestis Papadimitriou reflects on the events of last month and who was to blame. 

There was no apparent cause for concern. Unlike most summers in Greece, the rains had lasted through the winter and deep into the last days of June and temperatures were lower than usual. The only cause for worry was the small chance that holiday makers would end up spending their time on the islands under thick clouds and cold winds instead of the accustomed sunshine.

But then, things changed. On July 23, the first reports came in that a fire had broken out in the area of Kineta in the west of Attica. That afternoon, just hours later, another would start on mount Penteli, descending towards the coastal provinces of Neos Voutzas, Rafina and Mati in the East. Later that night, the government would officially confirm the first deaths, then amounting to “more than 20” people.

But that wasn’t even half the story. The fire in Eastern Attica proved to be the second most lethal in the world in the last 20 years, with 96 confirmed casualties, 100 missing and hundreds of injured people – both residents and visitors.

Three days after the fires broke out, Greece’s hospitals were unable to receive and handle any more blood that people offered to donate. In every neighbourhood in Athens, volunteers gathered food and medical supplies for those who had been injured. Thousands of people rushed to the centers set up by the Municipal Authorities, the Red Cross and the Scouts of Greece in Nea Makri and Rafina to assist the survivors.

What remains now, nearly a month on, is the question of who’s to blame. Strangely, many supporters and members of Alexis Tsipras’ government have decided to point the finger at the residents of Mati, some of whom were victims of the blaze. Greek Minister of Defense, Panos Kammenos, amazed reporters at the BBC, when he said that the state was unable to warn people to evacuate the area of Mati in time because of illegal building in the area that prevented people from being able to reach the sea to escape.

By contrast, those close to the opposition have turned their focus to the rescue services’ failure to coordinate, and thus to the responsibilities of the government.

The fire in Mati has revealed a fractured governmental apparatus that does not allow for quick and efficient decision making in times of crisis. The coast guard, stationed at the port opposite where the fire took place, reportedly did not receive orders to rescue those who took refuge in the sea for hours. The police was unable to handle traffic and as a result, the exits from the burning area towards Athens became heavily congested. Doctors in Evangelismos Hospital in the center of Athens were unprepared to receive almost 160 people in the ICU within two hours, especially since they had not been notified. The army’s hospitals in Attica were willing and able to receive some of the injured, but there was nobody who could arrange the dispatches and notify the ambulances.

As a result, the people took action. Before the coast guard responded, boats were commissioned by citizens to set sail from the port to pick up survivors from the sea. The head of a local army property ordered his regiment to break down the back wall of his camp to create an exit towards the sea for trapped locals. Hospitals organised their own system of distributing the injured and even “appointed” (unofficially) people who would manage the immense influx of survivors. Here, initiative was the antidote to the government’s dysfunctional protocol of crisis management.

But 96 dead people prove that the initiative of the people, while inspiring, is not enough. Speaking with an experienced doctor who has treated countless victims of disasters like this one, he was certain that this would never have happened ten or more years ago. Indeed, it was this near-collapse of the state eight years ago – that the opposition willingly enforced as part of two successive governments – which is now to blame for the events of last month.

And while the state’s failings in protecting against disaster might be temporary, the effects of the fire, in the context of the last eight years, are more permanent. The anarchic suburban development that the government is blaming for the tragedy did not come as a result of a few rebellious individuals, but was borne out of the post-war economic boom, which created a suburbia that would house the new middle class.

But unlike most of the countries who experienced the post-war financial boom, Greece’s economic growth took place under a failing state that was unable to promote plans for proper urban planning. It was also corrupt enough to use small-scale urbanism as a means of gaining favour among voters, when it was needed.

The province in Eastern Attica where the casualties occurred, was almost entirely occupied by this once vast middle class. In Kinetta in Western Attica – a poorer province that only briefly housed up-and-comers of the post-war boom and thus has proper city planning – there were no casualties and minimal damage to houses. Now, after the harsh restructuring of the Greek social stratification in the last eight years, it seems improbable that these people will be able to rebuild their homes. The middle class that once occupied these areas has shrunk considerably, the effects of disasters such as these having a permanent impact on their lives.

By speaking of this anarchic housing development as a “crime”, the government is paving the road for the politics of the future. When disaster strikes, there will be a mythological element of vengeance to it. The government is effectively treating the post-war Keynesian growth in Europe as a hubris; the hubris of attempting to leave poverty and precarity behind. And now, this notion of divine punishment over an immoral social mobility has become government policy.

By the end of August, bulldozers all over provincial Greece will start taking down 3200 unlicensed houses – and middle-class suburbanism with them. Minister of Civil Protection, Nikos Toskas, has quit, as well as the heads of the Civil Protection bureau, and the chiefs of the fire brigade and the police have been replaced. None of these actions have been accompanied by a definitive answer on who should take the blame for the tragedy of Attiki, nor has enough been done to provide a feeling of security that another lethal crisis like this could be averted in the future.

Meanwhile, on August 12, a new wildfire broke out in Evia, the second largest Greek island. High awareness meant that services managed to contain it relatively quickly, but not before it had burned another 12 000 acres of forest.

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