Sunday, 23 August 2009

Fires burn eastern Athens suburb of Pendeli

The eastern Attica fire finally reached Pendeli, Athens' easternmost suburb, on Sunday morning.

The entire region between Pallini due north to Anthousa, Drafi and Pendeli has been burned in the second night of the Grammatiko fire which started on Friday night. It has travelled about 40 kilometres from Grammatiko due south and east, burning almost every tree stand and all shrubland in its way.

The landscape is lunar. Pine forests lie charred down to the stumps - around them foliage burned to reveal blackened stones. Here and there smoke billows out of holes in the ground and there are frequent minor flareups.

Seven-force winds have been the key to this fiery onslaught. Many houses were saved precisely because the wind urged on the fire so fast that it hadn't time to digest homes. But anything lying outside garden walls – trees, power pylons and rubbish dumpsters - was devoured.

Many local residents had spent the night protecting their homes. On Sunday morning they were still doing what they could to put out small fires near their homes, beating them with olive branches and shovels, or forming human chains to relay buckets of water filled using yard hoses. The air was thick with acrid smoke, and people were covering their faces with T-shirts, kerchiefs and towels to work. Many had come to help friends and relatives. Occasionally the siren of a passing fire truck could be heard, but the fire was so widespread that many people didn't expect one to stop for them.

Despite 600 firefighters, 132 fire trucks, dozens of tanker trucks, 12 Canadair water-dousing planes and seven helitankers, foreign aid has had to be called in. Two Canadairs were due to arrive from Italy; another four were due from France and Cyprus.

The fire has been advancing over Pendeli mountain, a posh eastern suburb. By 1pm it had reached Pendeli's main square, and an evacuation order was given. A helitanker flew low over the square, dousing flames that leapt just a few dozen yards away. The smoke in places was so thick that visibility was only a few yards. Tanker trucks patrolled the main Pendeli road spraying down flareups in the pine stands that survive. The frequency of fires on this mountain has been great in recent years. Much of the growth now burning is only about four feet tall – not old enough to seed another generation.

Many Pendeli residents were waiting until the last moment to evacuate their houses. The roads were still lined with parked vehicles in late morning. Many people were waiting outside their homes, faces covered, their dogs beside them on leashes. From the invisible depths of the smoke explosions were audible – natural gas tanks, perhaps, or cars exploding.

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