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Forest Fire and global warming report from the Greek Hovel

Tom Winnifrith
Sunday 8 August 2021

You will, no doubt, have seen the reports of huge forest fires hitting southern and central Greece and might just have wondered if the hovel has yet been affected. Yes and No. It is okay, its occupants are a bit jittery.

Last week I headed to Kalamata to drop off my sister-in-law and niece. Joshua and I enjoyed an orange juice and coffee by the sea before making our return and up bounded my brother-in-law,‘I’, who was collecting his wife and daughter. He had driven from his home village of Vasilitsi which is near the southern tip of the Western of the three prongs of the Peloponnese, in other words, the other side of Kalamata from the Mani where I live.

It had been at the centre of a firestorm which, according to ‘I’, was started by arsonists. Ten houses had been destroyed and the fires were enormous leaping across roads and if they had a wind behind them, almost unstoppable. Earlier in the week, many folks in the village itself, though not the aged parents of ‘I’, had fled. The wind direction had changed and the village was safe but outlying houses, including that of ‘I’, were not.

He had spent the previous day moving the car and the most valuable possessions to the safety of a beach and then gone back to watch the house. Two neighbours with tractors loaded up with water tanks stood with him. ‘I’ had his motorbike in case things got too bad but thankfully the house was saved. And things there are now better. But ‘I’ said that that it was “hell”.

As we drove through Kalamata on the way home, the sky was just the wrong colour for it was only 6PM but already cars had their headlights on. If one looked over at I’s peninsular, huge plumes of smoke rose up into the sky from shockingly near Kalamata, creating those clouds which blocked out much of the sun. Folks were turning towards this darkness everywhere snapping pictures on their phones to share the panic. If only they had had smartphones at Pompeii, the scene would have been the same.

Joshua and I drove back along the coastal road to buy an ice cream for him, some Metaxa for the Mrs and to watch the sun, now a burning and unnatural red, setting in the West. As we reached the hovel, I could smell smoke, not a strong smell but a distinct one. That was the smoke from the other side of Kalamata which had drifted this way. I suggested we start closing most of the shutters in case we had to make a quick exit. Joshua said we should close all.

But the next morning there was no smell of smoke. I looked in all directions and there was the usual morning haze which was all too tempting to view as smoke but there was none. But I do now find myself scanning the horizons multiple times each day. I am nervous. This morning, as every morning, I wake up with the local roosters and as it is still dark I can scan all the mountain tops that surround us on two sides and the hills on the other two for signs of glow. So far so good.

On Thursday, we headed to the one sandy beach in Kardamili, the one by the house of Paddy Leigh Fermor. As it is without toilets or any beach bar and is well out of town, it is not that packed and after a brief swim we headed up into the mountains for lunch with the Guardian-reading loons L&G at the amazing Farrago hotel overlooking the gorge. Locally brewed Nema summer beer and the Farragi salad where I now have the recipe in my head. Amazing. What more could a man want?

On the way back to Kardamili, we spotted another enormous smoke plume but this was on our peninsular, the Mani. G says that it was a village about 10 miles south of Kardamili which is a centre of support for the fascists of Golden Dawn so she hoped the fire burned the whole place down. The compassion and love the left shows for one’s fellow man knows no bounds.

But the locals reckon the fascists escaped and that what we saw was from the East Mani, the other side of the Taygetos mountains. I think they are wrong and the water helicopters and planes heading past Kambos south are a sign of that. The blaze, L&G could see the glow from that night up in the mountains is now gone but over in the East Mani the fires continue and the destruction is massive. That fire could not jump mountains where the higher levels are well above the tree line.

However, this has been a hot and dry summer and we all know that a fire could start anywhere at any time. Folks are careful. They do not casually discard cigarettes as they might in the Winter. There are no fires, no barbecues. Anyone who does start one is arrested. But accidents can happen and there are clear signs of arson. So we all remain nervous.

If fire came to the hovel and we were trapped, I reckon that the bat room is where to hide. Its roof is concrete and the walls are stone. The one window had a sold wooden shutter and looks out on several yards of veranda paved with stone. So too does the door.  For a fire to take hold it needs a wind and that would mean it would pass quickly enough after torching all the olive trees and the sun burned brown grass. The olives would pop as they exploded giving the sound of machine gunfire. I’d rather not be around to hear it. If the fire approaches from the side of Kalamata and the murder gorge – which it might not be able to jump – I could drive the family to the safety of Kambos. But if it comes from the other side, we would have to tough it out in the bat toom, hoping that our stone and tiled house would survive the worst.

Fingers crossed it does not come to that. A tiny amount of rain is forecast for later this week in Kalamata. Maybe it will be a bit more up here in the mountains and that would be a game changer although there is a danger of lightning which would be unwelcome. In September, it typically rains for 4 days, for 5 in October and by November there is stacks of vreki and the grass starts to green before your eyes. 

So, thanks for those who asked, so far so good but it is a nervous time for all who live here and we could really do with some of the rain tipping down back in Wales.

Natch, the BBC and the other usual suspects see the fires as evidence of global warming. They ignore lots of data to arrive at this conclusion but who cares about that. The first is the massive increase in the population of Greece compared to 100 years ago as a result of events in 1922 and also general population growth. As more men crawl around here, encroaching into the natural world that causes more fires. Then there is the arson, not a feature of life even fifty years ago. Then there is the way that firefighters have been hampered across the world by the covering up of tracks into the forest which they used to use to reach blazes. In Greece, that is partly down to austerity and as everywhere environmentalists want tracks covered up to “regreen” the planet. Yes, folks like that twit Attenborough help forest fires.

And then there is the idea that we are suffering global warming. This summer has been the hottest since 1987 which itself was the hottest since the appalling heatwave of 1940. We could continue in this vein but to the cultists, data is irrelevant. They can in one breath say “this is the hottest summer since 1987” and then continue “and that is proof of global warming”. That there may be only a couple of days rain in southern  Greece this August is further evidence of the climate change although, in fact, the long-run average days of rain in this part of the world in August is er…two days.

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About Tom Winnifrith
Tom Winnifrith is the editor of When he is not harvesting olives in Greece, he is (planning to) raise goats in Wales.
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