Dispatch

Conspiracy Theories Rise From the Ashes of Greece’s Fires

The government can claim real successes amid the disaster, but rumors are running wild.

Forest fire in Greece
A resident holds an empty water hose during an attempt to extinguish forest fires approaching the village of Pefki in Evia, Greece’s second largest island, on Aug. 8. ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP via Getty Images

ATHENS—You can still just about smell the fires that have strafed Greece for more than a week. North of Athens, the bitter aftertaste of smoke lingers in the air. Across the country, images and video unspool hourly on TV and social media: blazing fields and smoking forests, burned out cars and buildings, weeping kids. Once more, Greece has been reduced to a newsreel of catastrophe.

But the forests are not the only thing the fires have lit up. They have brought into focus many of the issues that divide the country—as well as a surprising and critical success.

During the first week of August, Greece experienced temperatures reaching 107 to 113 degrees Fahrenheit—almost unprecedented, even by the country’s vertiginous standards. On Aug. 3, the near inevitable happened: Fire broke out. First hit was the northeastern Athenian suburb of Varibobi, which contains large amounts of highly flammable pine forest. Varibobi is close to Athens’s Olympic Village and the former royal summer palace, and within 24 hours, the fire burnt through these areas and headed east toward the Athenian suburbs of Drosia and Agios Stefanos. Greece is now in crisis mode. The government fears the fires may have destroyed up to 10 percent of Greece’s forest—an unprecedented environmental catastrophe.

Forest fire in Greece

A resident holds an empty water hose during an attempt to extinguish forest fires approaching the village of Pefki in Evia, Greece’s second largest island, on Aug. 8. ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP via Getty Images

ATHENS—You can still just about smell the fires that have strafed Greece for more than a week. North of Athens, the bitter aftertaste of smoke lingers in the air. Across the country, images and video unspool hourly on TV and social media: blazing fields and smoking forests, burned out cars and buildings, weeping kids. Once more, Greece has been reduced to a newsreel of catastrophe.

But the forests are not the only thing the fires have lit up. They have brought into focus many of the issues that divide the country—as well as a surprising and critical success.

During the first week of August, Greece experienced temperatures reaching 107 to 113 degrees Fahrenheit—almost unprecedented, even by the country’s vertiginous standards. On Aug. 3, the near inevitable happened: Fire broke out. First hit was the northeastern Athenian suburb of Varibobi, which contains large amounts of highly flammable pine forest. Varibobi is close to Athens’s Olympic Village and the former royal summer palace, and within 24 hours, the fire burnt through these areas and headed east toward the Athenian suburbs of Drosia and Agios Stefanos. Greece is now in crisis mode. The government fears the fires may have destroyed up to 10 percent of Greece’s forest—an unprecedented environmental catastrophe.

A helicopter retrieves water off the coast of Greece.

A helicopter retrieves water while fighting fires near Lambiri Beach at Patras, Greece, on Aug. 1. LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP via Getty Images

A fire burns in Greece

A fire burns in the Varympompi suburb north of Athens on Aug. 3. Aris Oikonomou/Hans Lucas/Reuters

Since taking power in 2019, the New Democracy party has put digital governance at the heart of policy, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, it rolled out an emergency text messaging system, this time to let those in the path of the flames know they had to evacuate their homes. People on the ground think it made all the difference. On Aug. 8, near the peak of the crisis, I drove to the outskirts of Varibobi and spoke to the locals.

Renos, a 74-year-old civil engineer who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the government warning system had been a lifesaver—literally. “It’s not just that they tell you to leave. That would not be enough,” he said. “They tell you exactly where to go. They direct you to safety. I think this is the reason that despite there being almost 500 fires across Greece, … so far no one has burned to death.”

He’s right—the government must take credit here. Although there have been two casualties, one from a falling utility pole and the other from smoke inhalation, no one has perished in the flames—unprecedented for fires in Greece.

Warming to his theme, he continued: “Look at the 2018 fires in Mati. We had under [the previous government] more than 100 people died because they were simply unable to do things like this.” I asked if he thought things would be worse if the SYRIZA party was still in power. “Exponentially,” he replied. Recent evidence suggests 102 people died in the Mati fire, either because they got trapped in burning fields or because they drowned after diving into the sea to escape the flames.

But the problems go far beyond Athens’s suburbs. Pretty much as soon as Varibobi erupted, fires broke out on the Greek island of Evia and in the Peloponnese region in the country’s south. Images of Evia, particularly of people being evacuated from the island in a ferry surrounded by a vista of blood red skies and undulating flames, went global: This was climate apocalypse made real.

People board a ferry as a wildfire approaches in Greece.

People board a ferry as a wildfire approaches the seaside village of Limni on the island of Evia, Greece, on Aug. 6. SOTIRIS DIMITROPOULOS/Eurokinissi/AFP via Getty Images

More than a week later, almost all the fires around Athens are out; yet on Evia, the blaze continues. Sources confirmed evacuees are being housed wherever they can: with relatives, in nearby cities, or in hotels the state has rented. In the town of Istiaia, authorities have converted the basketball court of a gym into a makeshift refugee camp. Most of the island’s northern half has burned down. “It’s just so dry,” said a senior government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “You have to dig around 60 centimeters into the ground before you hit moisture, which makes it perfect for the spread of fire.”

“Then there are the limitations that all governments face in these situations,” the official continued. “You can’t send firefighters into the forest. The heat levels are too high: They’ll die. And the planes and helicopters can’t fly constantly because of weather conditions.”

A firefighter and locals rush to a burning house in Greece.

A firefighter and locals rush to a burning house to extinguish forest fires approaching the village of Pefki on the island of Evia, Greece, on Aug. 8. ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP via Getty Images

There have also been governance failings. The government has faced criticism for insufficient numbers of firefighters and the inadequacy of fire brigades in general—in Evia, most of those battling the flames are volunteers. Greece’s second largest island has large areas of flammable forest plus a degree of isolation that prevented mainland help from coming quickly. These Clark Kents worked in shops and restaurants, and each night after business hours, they morphed into firefighting supermen and women.

This is all so damning because the entire country knows the dangers of summer fires, which stretch back more than a century. In 1917 in Thessaloniki, fire destroyed a large part of the city, mostly its central and Jewish neighborhoods. In 1993, fires broke out in Ikaria, where 13 people died and around 988 acres were burnt down. Further fires in August 2007 in Evia and Peloponnesus saw 77 people die. On almost every occasion, the problem was the same: a lack of a proper firefighting plan and inadequate capabilities.

Destruction from a fire is seen in Thessaloniki, Greece, in 1917.

Destruction from a fire is seen in Thessaloniki, Greece, on Sept. 4, 1917. Photo 12/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Successive governments have simply not spent what is needed to maintain the country’s firefighting capabilities. Greek Deputy Minister of Civil Protection Nikos Hardalias publicly confessed “some aircraft had to be repaired” before they could be used. It’s inexcusable, but it also points to the continuing legacy of the austerity the “troika” (the consortium formed by the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund) imposed on Greece during the financial crisis—the first of which came in 2010.

Amid their—largely correct—demands that Greece clamp down on taxation and slash public sector pensions, the troika insisted on cuts to many of its vital services. As former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis tweeted this week: “The indisputable fact [is] that the troika forced the [government] to dissolve the bushfire fighting unit, and to starve the fire brigade of funds.” Now, the entire country is paying the price. Greece finally exited its bailout program in 2018, but the shadow of those years continues to shape the country, which has yet to fully process its fraught and contested legacy.

On Aug. 9, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis went on TV to make a public apology. “I fully understand the pain of our fellow citizens who saw their homes or property burned,” he said. “Any failures will be identified. And responsibility will be assigned wherever necessary.”

Mitsotakis also promised forests would be replanted and climate defenses shored up. The government is determined to get aid to Evia as a matter of priority. The official who briefed me about the situation there also said money from the EU COVID-19 recovery fund can be diverted to the island, which, because its per capita GDP is low, also qualifies for extra cash. “It’s now up to us to make sure the distribution of this happens expeditiously,” he said. “We are going to ensure that people can make applications online—just once—and get their money fast. Let me be clear: People are going to see an immediate response.”

A wildfire moves toward the village of Gouves

A wildfire moves toward the village of Gouves on Evia island, Greece, on Aug. 8. ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP via Getty Images

The country has been on fire politically and socially for a long time. In Kifisia, a suburb in north Athens near Varibobi, Irene Stamopoulou, a 20-year-old waitress, is in doubt about who is responsible. “The fires started because some people wanted to build something,” she said while wiping down my table. I expressed skepticism, but she was adamant. “About a month ago, there were some guys who wanted to develop land around here, but they were turned down. Now everything has burned, so I guess they can now.”

The country has been on fire politically and socially for a long time.

If it sounds like conspiracy, she is merely echoing the chatter on social media claiming private investors are using networks of arsonists to depress property prices in the area or to just torch forests they can redevelop for next to nothing. These rumors have been bolstered by police investigations into possible arson cases in Athens while a team of investigators from the capital have been dispatched to Ilia in the Peloponnese region. Volunteers from Greece’s air force deployed to the affected areas also spoke of stoves and pieces of mirror they found in the forests around Athens. But the feeling is these are isolated incidents rather than the organized network of popular imagination.

Greeks generally subscribe to the idea that much of the country’s business is done through powerful networks beyond the average person’s influence—and the previous decade has provided ample fertilizer for the weeds of conspiracy to grow. In 2008, the so-called “Vatopedi scandal” exposed dodgy dealings between the church and the government around land belonging to the Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos. The monastery returned to the Greek state some valuable church land the government wanted, and in return, it got two buildings totaling some 20,664 square miles in the Olympic Village of Athens and 8,600 acres in Ouranoupoli. As the monastery was the main administrator of various offshore companies in Cyprus, the whole thing reeked of corruption, and Vatopedi’s abbot, Archimandrite Ephraim, was initially arrested. In the end though, the court decided in favor of the monastery, and everyone went home happy—and much richer. Except the Greek people, who were furious.

The logical conclusion of historical example and with present-day worries was as predictable as it was depressing. On Aug. 7, the Greek City Times—an outlet that often veers into far-right rhetoric—reported an Afghan woman was arrested for attempted arson in Pedion tou Areos park in central Athens. (Sources told me the woman had mental health issues.) Greece is an entry point into the European Union for refugees from the Middle East, and during the European migrant crisis, it was the transit route for thousands of people moving to the continent. Migration remains a live issue in the country. The article sparked a wave of tweets from supporters of Greece’s far-right Golden Dawn party, claiming leftist lawyers defending the woman had links to the Turkish government. Migrants, leftists, and Turkey: a full house in Greek far-right bingo.

Not to be outdone, trolls are also attacking the government. Their subject of choice is ​​wind turbines—a controversial issue in Greece. As part of long-standing, well-intentioned, but often clumsy attempts to promote greater use of renewable energy, wind turbines have been popping up across the country for years. The problem is they often don’t work, don’t gel with local energy networks, and damage the environment. When a fire burns down an area, wind turbines often pop up soon after. Now, some are claiming Mitsotakis’s family business interests are playing a shadowy role in things.

A woman reacts during a forest fire in Greece.

A woman reacts during a fire in the village of Asmini on Evia island, Greece, on Aug. 10. ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP via Getty Images

The Mitsotakis family has a lot of business interests, and they have generated controversy. In 2017, Piraeus Bank lent a newspaper the family owned 300,000 euros (or $351,000)—effectively handing the sum over to them despite it being common knowledge the paper could never hope to repay it. Officials in the SYRIZA government accused the loan of being a scam and Mitsotakis of trying to enrich his family, which it linked—in typical breathless style—with a corrupt banker-politicians nexus.

The link between the Mitsotakis family and corruption was planted in public imagination. Now the fact the prime minister’s sister Alexandra Mitsotakis is head of the Convergences Greece Forum, which lobbies for public and private actors to work together to promote and address the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals, has given impetus to a conspiracy that the New Democracy party has allowed the fires to run wild so they can plant wind turbines in their aftermath. Far-right journalist Giorgos Tragkas wrote “the Mitsotakis quasi-state is emerging from the flames burning Greece” and hinted at a “fire-redevelopment” nexus. Crazy it may be, but it finds an audience.

Refugees, corruption, EU austerity, long-term state failures, conspiracy, and division: The fires lay out, in kaleidoscopic detail, the troubles of modern Greece. But amid all of this is the story of a state struggling to save lives in an emergency—and doing so successfully.

New Democracy is determined to revolutionize Greek governance—every minister and advisor I have met with has told me this. They have begun digitizing the country and smoothing legislation. Mitsotakis has put in a core team of four advisors—all technocrats who have achieved success in the private sector. The five individuals regularly meet in his official residence, the Maximos Mansion, where they all work.

There is a maxim that if you want to improve something, you stress test it: The government has now faced COVID-19 and climate fires within its first two years. It’s been hard, but they have come through both. Now, they are determined to show the people what they have learned and how that will benefit all of Greece.

Correction, Aug. 24, 2021: A previous version of the article did not accurately describe the scope of work done by Convergences Greece Forum.

David Patrikarakos is a journalist and the author of War in 140 Characters and Nuclear Iran.

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