Greece on Fire
The stench of sulphur and dead animals completely dominated the air. Smoke stung my eyes. The landscape looked like it had been torn by big black wounds after the fires that over the past week had devoured massive forest areas, houses, people and animals.
I went to Greece with my good friend and fellow photographer, Klavs Bo Christensen, at the end of August when the fires had ravaged the country for the better part of a week. We decided to travel to the Peloponnese peninsula where a lot of the fires were still out of control. We wanted to depict the consequences of these forest fires rather than do regular news photography. Plenty had done that before us.
Maypia, a small village in southern Peloponnese, lay quiet. Every day of the past week the villagers had fought the fires and now people were nervously watching the forest that lay close to the western town limit. The trees had been smoking menacingly all day and suddenly the wind made them catch fire yet again. A small tractor with a water container and a tiny hose was quickly brought out and the villagers started fighting the fire ferociously.
The thin hose is no match for the flames but with the assistance of a fire engine and four voluntary firemen from France – part of the European Union's aid to the Greek authorities who had quickly realized that they were not able to handle the situation themselves – the fire was put out after a short struggle.
But fire travels quickly on the wind and we discover that it has flared in the northern part of the village 300 meters away, threatening to eat up two of the houses closest by. Everybody runs toward the new battleground and when we get there we see one person trying to save his house by beating at the fire with a branch. The smoke is heavy and grey and I have a hard time focusing because of my constantly watering eyes. The four French firefighters fearlessly attack the fire in an attempt to save the house and armed with branches and water hoses, they miraculously manage to put the fire out. The other house is saved by its residents and the owner, an elderly lady, is putting out the rest of the fire in the garden. Klavs and I throw our cameras on our shoulders and start helping her. We get our canteens refilled and look at each other, both surprised at the speed of events. Klavs' eyes are red and running. My right arm is bleeding.
We spend a week in Peloponnese and in that week we covered more than 2,500 kilometers [over 1,553 miles] in our pursuit of the pictures that would wholly illustrate this catastrophe. Chasing the fires soon proved to be more difficult than expected. Every day fire struck in a different place and finding that place in time and then getting close enough became a matter of luck and coincidence.
What struck me most on this trip was the Greek people's incredible hospitality and the human will to survive in spite of everything. The drive to the city of Makistos went through an eerie landscape of dead black trees and I imagined that this would be the sight that would meet survivors of a nuclear apocalypse. Even though it had been a week since the fires were finally put out in this area, some trees were still smoking as if they were left behind as an unnecessary reminder of what had been. On this stretch of mountain road 19 people had been caught by the flames, among them a mother and her four children, and in Makistos half the houses were burned to the ground, with their owners now living in trailers. But still we are met, yet again, with nothing but smiles and hospitality. They serve us coffee and tell their tragic story. Three men tease an older man by stealing his cap.
Sixty-four people were killed and more than 3,000 people were left homeless by the fire. It also burned approximately 1,900 square kilometers [1,181 square miles] of land. The Greek Ministry of Finance estimates that the massive forest fires caused damages worth 5 billion Euros (7 billion U.S. dollars).
© Carsten Snejbjerg
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