Athens, GreeceThe earliest signs of trouble came around midday on Thursday, August 5. Wafts of thick black smoke darkened the sky to the south and west of the Greek hilltop where my partner and I had rented a vacation house. Within a few hours, an acrid plume rolled over this previously idyllic stretch of the Peloponnesian mountains. Fire patrols began to tear up and down the adjacent mountainside. By 1 a.m., with seemingly the whole village awake and anxiously scanning the peaks for flames, the stench was so potent that we struggled to breathe. Bundling luggage into the car, we tore down the valley and made the long trip through the night home to Athens.
Even in the Greek capital there is no escaping the crisis that’s come to consume much of the country. A series of overlapping fires on and around Mt. Parnitha, which bounds the city to the north, has enveloped Athens in a noxious black cloud of its own. There’s been little blue sky here. There’s little power, either. The government has had to implement rolling blackouts in many neighborhoods after flames consumed vital swathes of electricity infrastructure. That has just added to the end-of-days sensation, as cars speed through inoperable traffic lights on major avenues, and pedestrians reluctantly don the masks they had only recently been allowed to discard as COVID restrictions were relaxed.
“I have barely slept all week,” my local fruit vendor told me, bags under his eyes, as I stocked up on my return. “This year is just problem after problem after problem.”
It’s August, the month when many Athenians and other urbanites steal away to their ancestral villages for much-needed relief, and after months of tight pandemic lockdown, Greeks need a break now more than ever. It’s not panning out that way. One major blaze has already consumed the northern third of Evia, Greece’s second biggest island. Several others, including the fast-moving one that chased me off the Peloponnesian peninsula, have eaten into some of the country’s most stunning wilderness.
As with the infernos that ripped through the U.S. Pacific Northwest in June and early July, and the Dixie Fire that has become the second largest in California’s history, the Greek fires appear to be at least partly rooted in climate change. After experiencing severe drought for months and the most sustained heat wave since the 1980s, with temperatures topping 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40°C) for almost 10 days in the Athens area, Greece is a tinderbox. It’s taken little more than a mix of natural sparks, human carelessness, and perhaps arson to ignite it. Similar conditions across the eastern Mediterranean have triggered what will likely be Turkey’s worst ever fires, which have scorched parts of over half the 81 provinces, and left chunks of Italy and other European states ablaze.
Not only forests are threatened
But what distinguishes Greece, perhaps, is the extent to which these fires resonate beyond the immediately afflicted areas. A relatively small, exceptionally mountainous country with a number of natural bottlenecks, it is easily brought to a standstill. The Athens fires have cut the main north-south highway to Thessaloniki. A fire near ancient Olympia, the site of the original Olympic games, has severed the largest cross-Peloponnese route. In Evia, where the coast guard has rescued more than 600 people, the landscape is so rugged and the destruction so prolific that the sea has become one of the few means of escape.
A steady churn of emergency push alerts keeps people on their toes. “Extreme danger for fires in the next days. Avoid any actions that may cause a fire. Access to forests and forested areas is prohibited. Avoid unnecessary travel,” warned one of the messages I received. Tens of thousands of people have been ordered to evacuate their homes over the past week.
So far, two people have been reported dead, a merciful departure from 2018, when fires in coastal Attica, the region that includes Athens, killed more than 100. That may understate the wider impact, though. The health fallout will be severe, with hundreds of Greeks already hospitalized for smoke inhalation. Thousands more have had their COVID-19 vaccination appointments canceled—the state has had to temporarily close some vaccination centers due to fire risks, just as the Delta variant boosts the number of COVID-19 cases.
After decades of steady depopulation, which has reduced thousands of villages to ghost communities of crumbling houses and mostly elderly residents, this is also the last thing much of rural Greece needs. The loss of even small patches of farmland can be devastating for some of the few who remain to work the land.
Most important, in a country that’s both defined by and dependent on its history—tourism is vital to the Greek economy—these fires are threatening some of the most important heritage sites. In an interview with me early last year, the head of a new government commission on the impact of climate change on antiquities identified wildfires as the biggest threat to the likes of Olympia, which appears to have narrowly survived last week after several other close encounters in recent years.
“Fires and the flooding that gets worse when you lose trees will become even more of a problem,” said Constantinos Cartalis, a professor at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. “This is what should worry us all.”
Last summer, a wildfire was brought under control just as it reached the outer walls of the ruins of Mycenae, a center of ancient Greek civilization.
It’s a measure of Greece’s extraordinary cultural riches that, speeding away from the fire in the early hours of Friday, we passed by Lake Stymphalia and Nemea, the supposed scenes of two of the labors of Hercules, and well over a dozen archaeological sites, all within half an hour. No matter where a Greek fire burns it’s bound to threaten globally significant heritage.
On Friday evening, a cool, westerly wind finally lowered temperatures, bringing some respite, especially to those without electricity. For firefighters, though, this was no good thing. Standing on the top of Lycabettus, the steep, forested hill in central Athens, I watched as the strengthening breeze fanned a new fire into existence in a northern suburb and carried smoke from the Peloponnese across the sea to the south, beyond the Acropolis. The sky glowed orange.
Down below, the normally lively city felt strangely subdued. If this is the new normal, it’s going to take a lot of adapting to.