Pandemonium of a forest fire

By Jonathan Rendall (THE TIMES, 28/08/07):

The first fires of the present Greek catastrophe were started on Mount Penteli, a towering slope of forest 30 kilometres north of Athens. I grew up there in my teenage years. At the turn of the 1980s it was an idyllic place to be.

The country tracks were not tarmac. You could walk up through the forest paths to the shepherds’ huts, and wander through the glades. If I’d been able to paint I’d have taken my water colours out, or at least a guitar to serenade the landscape that Byron said was too melancholy to write in. But unfortunately I couldn’t play that, either. Then, one day when I was 15, the idyll became an inferno, a hell.

The initial fires started down near Marathon, by the coast. But this was also some 30km away from us. At night, my younger brother and I watched the faint orange glow on the horizon with interest. Our local village was Dionysos, named after the demonic figure of Greek mythology – the wayward son of Zeus, no less – reputed for his drunkenness and sexual licentiousness.

The word in the kafeneons (coffee shops) was that this Marathon fire was the work of arsonists from the anarchist party, or perhaps even terrorists from the November 17 group, who had murdered the American CIA chief in Athens. It wouldn’t touch us, though. But it did.

The first sign was the faint, acrid waft of smoke. There was also the occasional cinder flake. But, looking around the mountain, the fire still seemed to be several kilometres away, heading elsewhere. Then, suddenly, it was almost upon us, some 200 metres away, apparently coming directly for the house. Its roar was terrifying as it consumed tree after noble tree.

As I retreated, cinder clumps dive-bombed me from all sides and the air was turning black. My father ordered an emergency evacuation and we tumbled, pets and all, into the car. My favourite cat refused to budge from the roof, however, so my last act was to climb up and water him with the hose, to give the kid a chance.

The scene on the Marathon road was pandemonium. Snakes, tortoises and foxes from the forest were taking refuge on it. Some of the foxes, alarmed by daylight human presence, ran back into the blazing trees, probably to their deaths. In places, the fire had encroached on both sides of the road.

We were lucky. The wind must have changed, and the fire singed only one corner of the house. The cat was fine. Back then in Greece, setting fire to forests was assumed to be an extremist act of political expression. Now, there is a further, fiscal dimension, which is that land that materially changes can become open to new discussion of ownership.

All I know is that, after 20 years of regeneration, the forests of Mount Penteli have been razed again, the glades are once more gone, and that the fires are burning in more than half of Greece. As the poet might have said: melancholia, indeed.