Saturday, 22 August 2009

Athens fires to spread overnight

The fire that started at 8:46pm on Friday 21 August in Grammatiko, about 30km northeast of Athens, has split into several fronts going in all directions. One front threatened Varnavas, Grammatiko's neighbouring town to the north-northwest. Another burned its way to Sesi, the beach local to Grammatiko, due east, and was by one report threatening the ruins of Rhamnous, the 5th century Athenian garrison fort. Another front has burned west-southwest to Lake Marathon and another, further in the same direction, threatened homes in Stamata and was bound for Dionysos, which can be described as an outlying suburb of greater Athens. The fronts are so many that even well-funded local media have had trouble keeping track of them with the aid of helicopters. No one has ventured a number. The fire brigade speaks of one fire broken into many fronts.

The fire is eating its way through thick pine forest and shrubland. Houses and farmsteads have been burned, but no-one knows how many. Television images suggested that outlying houses in the town of Grammatiko itself were about to be licked by flames 10 metres high.

Firemen fought hard to douse a blaze in Magoula north of Athens yesterday. But a tally of the resources brought to bear gives an idea of the scale of this fire: At the height of operations today, 78 fire trucks supported by 32 tanker trucks, 12 Canadair water-dousing planes and eight helitankers along with a total of 260 men were losing this battle badly.

The sky over Athens told the whole story. Half was azure blue and cloudless, as nature meant it to be on this day. The other half was an evil mixture of charcoal-black opening to brown, so thick that it eclipsed the sun.

Summer camps and homes have been evacuated, with many people suffering from smoke inhalation. No casualties are yet officially reported. Even the army has retreated from a base in the area, no match for the seven-force gusts that are the key to the strength of this fire.

As we go into a second night of the blaze, it is unclear whether the fire fighters will be able to bring greater resources to bear on Sunday. Sixty fires started across Greece on Friday, another 65 on Saturday by late afternoon. With such tallies the fire brigade has to keep assets spread far and wide in anticipation of other potential disasters. Add to this the fact that a windy night favours fire because aircraft cannot operate in the dark. It is safe to say that dawn will reveal a very different eastern Attica to that which we knew until last week.

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