Pappádes, Greece: Stunned, Kostis Angelou wanders between the corpses of his goats, all 372 of them burnt by a fire that devoured forests on Evia island in Greece. “I’m lost,” he sighs, “I can’t take it anymore.”
The goats lie on the two flanks of a hill blackened by the blaze that burnt for more than a week in the north of Greece’s second-biggest island.
Up there, in the middle of the forest, the 44-year-old farmer survived miraculously by spending hours under an irrigation water pipe, surrounded by flames.
“A saint saved me,” Angelou says.
There is a crushing silence, only broken by the rustle of dried leaves in the breeze.
At the foot of lifeless tree trunks lie the eviscerated bodies of charred animals in a cloud of flies, a sickening smell in the air.
A horn is visible through the bare branches and blackened trees, a jawbone too, in what has become an open-air cemetery on a carpet of ashes.
Angelou surveys the damage, his face haggard, eyes sunken into his face.
He kneels, takes his head in his hands: “Let them bury them, I don’t want to see them anymore.”
Start ‘from scratch’
Angelou left school aged 12. Since then, he has raised goats, one of many herds in Evia’s northeast.
“For more than 30 years, 365 days a year,” he says.
“My heart has to calm down, I’ve got to start everything again from scratch,” he whispers.
He says his father worked for 50 years to get “such a herd. If he comes here, he will faint”.
Over in the family home in the tiny village of Kerasia, Spyros Angelou, 73, is finding it hard to come to terms with the disaster.
“We’re finished, what do you want us to do?” he asks, sitting at a table in the courtyard.
“I grew up with these creatures.
“The pines burned, the fields burned, the animals burned. We’re going to be hungry. What will we eat? How are we going to live?”
Nestled in the rolling hills, Kerasia is surrounded by devastation. The flames stopped on the doorstep of the primary school, and the steep streets were saved by local residents.
Kostis Angelou is the father of an 11-year-old, and hopes for a different future for him.
“My son used to accompany me everywhere whenever he had time. It’s better if he never gets involved in breeding and finds another job,” he says.
Officials came to check on the damage done to estimate how much compensation they could get, and he should be getting money for each of his lost goats.
Some small rehabilitation works have also started already.
Angelou sighs: “Houses are easily rebuilt, nature is another story.”
‘Bath time’: Volunteer vets tend to Greece’s fire-hit pets
With balm and bandages for scorched paws, volunteers at a makeshift animal shelter north of Athens are doing what they can for cats and dogs, whether strays or left behind as their owners fled advancing wildfires.
The volunteer vets have organized an “intensive care” area to monitor severely burnt animals under a tarpaulin in an abandoned quarry on the outskirts of the capital.
“So far we have taken in 233 animals,” Yannis Batsas, president of Action Volunteers Greek Veterinarians, told AFP.
And the animals keep coming. “We receive about 20 every day.”
The less severely affected four-legged survivors get baths every two to three hours to cool their burns.
“It’s time for a bath,” one young volunteer said as she took hold of two small puppies, easing them into a small basin of water.
Many in the Athens area were evacuated at the start of August as advancing wildfires ravaged pine forests and homes some 30 kilometers (19 miles) north of the capital.
Along roads lined with the charred husks of pine trees, AFP reporters met groups of volunteers collecting abandoned aminals in Efnides and other affected villages.
With strays common in the area, the animals are the first victims of the fires, the vets say, not to mention the many domesticated animals left in gardens as their owners fled.
The volunteers at the shelter do what they can to comfort the animals, circulating among cages where dogs with bandaged paws await their owners.
In a cacophony of barking, the dogs, burnt on their paws or on their bodies, joyfully welcome the volunteers whenever they approach.
Settled on sheets filled with ice cubes, about 20 of the canines are waiting for their owners to come and reclaim them or, failing that, a family to adopt them.
So far, nearly 90 animals have found their families, said Elena Dede, founder of nonprofit organization Dogs’ Voice.
Dede said more than 2,000 people showed up to volunteer, many agreeing to take dogs home for a couple of weeks to ease pressure at the shelter.
“Instead of having 200 animals all in one place, you’ll never have more than about 50, and that’s because of the shelters and adoptions,” said Batsas.
Outpouring of solidarity
Dede said the group had received donations amounting to about 10 tonnes of dog and cat food.
“That will be distributed all over Attica, in areas affected by the fires and here of course,” she said.
The outpouring of solidarity in Athens is encouraging volunteers to open another center on the island of Evia, where wildfires continued to rage on Thursday.
“A team left for Evia to go and see the farms, the goats, the sheep that were burnt,” said Batsas.
“Evia is a different story. We have to be sure that we’ll have the capacity to respond with the same efficiency that we have here,” said Dede.
Evacuating injured animals from Greece’s second-largest island is complicated.
“They have to be transported by boat, which lengthens the journeys,” said Irini Tapouti, director of the Chalkida veterinary clinic on Evia.
On the beach at Pefki, where deckchairs are now covered with ash, Roula Papadimitri and her daughter Eva are bringing first aid and comfort to a dozen dogs they saved from the flames.
They were forced to abandon their house in the adjoining village of Artemisia on foot.
“There is no way I’m leaving without them,” Eva said.
“How can you abandon dogs,” asked her mother, incredulous.
Slowly, Roula poured water into the animals’ thirsty mouths. A small cat rescued from the flames weaves in and out between the trembling dogs.
Three dogs have been caged to stop them from running away and endangering themselves, said Roula.
“I’m not going to let them go and be taken by a wolf.”
Almost 100,000 hectares of forest burned in Greek fires
Nearly 100,000 hectares of forestry and farmland have burned in less than two weeks in Greece in the worst wave of wildfires since 2007, the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS) said Wednesday.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mistotakis described the 586 fires that ravaged several regions of Greece in just a few days as “a natural disaster of exceptional magnitude”.
More than 93,600 hectares (231,000 acres) went up in smoke in just 14 days, fuelled by an extraordinary heatwave that struck at the beginning of August, according to AFP calculations based on EFFIS data from July 29 to August 11.
The average burn over the same period between 2008-2020 was 2,330 hectares.
“They are still very destructive today everywhere, and have a rare high level of intensity,” according to Mark Parrington of Copernicus, the European Climate Change service, which includes EFFIS.
The symbolic threshold of 100,000 hectares burned in Greece is expected to be reached on Thursday or Friday, as fires continued to rage Wednesday in the Peloponnese in the west and the island of Evia in the east.
Evia, Greece’s second-biggest island, has borne the brunt of the fires, home to more than half the total area burned.
Its thick pine forests, still ablaze on Wednesday, have been largely reduced to ash in the northern part of the island.
While fires were to be expected given the very dry conditions, nothing suggested their dreadful scale, said Charalampos Kontoes, director of the National Observatory in Athens.
“To some extent, fires were expected because of the very dry season,” Kontoes told AFP. “But I can tell you that in Greece we never had such big fires. We have fires during hot seasons but not at that size.”
Deadly 2007 fires
In all, a total of around 110,000 hectares have gone up in flames this year as of August 11, with over 90 percent of the damage coming in the last two weeks alone. That’s compared to an average of just over 9,000 hectares over the previous 12 years, according to the latest EFFIS figures.
“Our data shows that we didn’t have such intense fires since August 2007,” said Parrington.
More than 250,000 hectares of forests and olive groves were burnt in August 2007 in wildfires that killed 77 people.
This year’s fires came as Greece suffered its worst heatwave in three decades. For a week, temperatures reached 45 degrees Celsius in several parts of the country and flirted with a stifling 43 degrees Celsius in the capital Athens.
Experts say there is a clear link between the heatwave and climate change. A draft UN assessment seen by AFP described the Mediterranean as a “climate change hotspot”, saying increasing temperatures had lengthened fire seasons.
‘Blisteringly clear’ climate change links
“The links between climate and wildfire are blisteringly clear in Mediterranean Europe,” said Matthew Jones, an expert in climate change at the University of East Anglia in eastern England.
“Since the 1980s, the annual number of days with extreme fire weather conditions has roughly doubled, dramatically increasing the risk of wildfires.”
“A lot of agricultural areas has also been destroyed,” said the National Observatory’s Kontoes, adding that this would have a devastating effect on the economy of communities impacted by the fires.
The land will take “years to regenerate”, he said.
The weather offers no immediate respite, according to Thomas Smith, Professor of Geography at the London School of Economics.
“Unfortunately, EFFIS forecasts suggest that forest fires will persist in Greece until there is significant rainfall — at least until August 17,” Smith said.
“The wildfires will persist until there is some significant rainfall, and it is likely that the situation might worsen before it gets better.”