As the night wore on, the temperature in Athens was hot, with lots of wind. During the night, I couldn’t sleep well because dogs in my neighbourhood kept barking since 3am. As a matter of fact, I was angry with them because they had already woken me up twice that night.
At 5.19am, I received a message from 112, from the Civil Protection, telling me in Greek and English that I had to evacuate because of a fire. There was a similar message received by everyone else around.
A thick smoke odour filled the air, and then I saw flames on the nearby mountain for the first time. In the dark, they were so red, and I realised the situation was serious. As the wind blew, wood chucks and ashes flew everywhere.
In a matter of minutes, we had filled a bag and left within a few minutes of waking everyone up. Due to the thicker smoke, we wear the surgical masks we used to deal with COVID-19. I found them quite effective, allowing me to breathe well through them.
Suddenly, the local church bells began ringing. Since everyone was sleeping, some were unable to read a message, and in particular, the older ones. However, there was no way to ignore the sound of bells ringing at 5.30am in the morning. In my experience, this has never happened before. Everyone in the neighbourhood could be woken up by this sound, indicating that something was wrong, and everyone should get out of bed as soon as possible to check out what was going on.
There were police cars everywhere, which gave me a sense of security. I was also pleased to see local authorities evacuating not only humans, but also animals. Dogs were treated with dignity. Frankly, I don’t believe anyone could abandon his pet in such a difficult situation. I even regret being so angry with dogs a few hours ago.
They were simply attempting to warn us that there was a serious threat. As usual, animals demonstrated their affection for humans, and it took me so much time to fully understand it.
We were a safe distance from the fire as the sun began to rise. I was two kilometers away in a safe location when I heard the noise of a helicopter, followed by another, and then a third. The event was already covered by the media, and the fire turned out to be one of the largest in Attica, destroying vegetation and houses on a massive scale. Thankfully, the helicopters and Canadair planes were able to put out the fire a few hours later.
When I returned, the smell of burned wood lingered for several hours. As a souvenir, I collected some ashes and placed them in a small box. I had to do a lot of cleaning, but everything was fine thanks to those brave firefighters and heroic pilots who risk their lives to protect nature and our lives.
I walked on the burned wood a few days later. It was the moment of truth when you realised what really happened. It could take years, if not decades, for nature to fix it. After all, this summer high temperatures and strong winds led to fires not only in Greece, but also in Portugal, Spain, and France. It is likely that this will happen more often as a result of climate change in the years to come. It is for this reason that European cooperation needs to be strengthened.
Romanian firemen served in Greece, and then were replaced by French. Greece sent airplanes along with other European countries to help extinguish the fires in South France. All this sounds nice, but I strongly believe there is much more that should be done in the same direction.
Finally, I thought the 112-message sent to all mobile phones in the area where there was a fire was a brilliant idea that saved lives in danger. Technology, particularly in extreme situations, can play a critical role. At the same time, we must be prepared to face new threats as a result of climate change and consider the necessary measures to protect the natural environment around urban areas. This could be critical in the coming years as our cities become greener, smarter, and more environmentally friendly. What is at stake in the coming years may even be our survival as a living species on this planet, which is, after all, our home.
Dr George Tassiopoulos is a political scientist, with a PhD in Political Science from the University of East Paris. Born in Athens, he has lived in France for the past 20 years and teaches geopolitics in a business school in Paris.