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Saturday, October 23, 2010

Fire on Kythera

On my most recent trip to Kythera fire broke out in the mountains behind the airport. My husband and I were on our way to the port to return to the mainland after a very short holiday on the island. As we approached the airport, I noted smoke smearing the cloudless, blue sky. Moments later we rounded a bend in the road and saw the entire hillside aflame.

It was August in Greece, and this was a barren mountainside covered with thorn and other scrub-growth – all of it tinder-dry. A line of orange flames stretched across a hundred yards belching black smoke. It crackled its way forward toward the road, driven by a brisk breeze off the ocean. A handful of abandoned cars cowered beside the road, and two men officiously waved traffic through the smoke sinking onto the road. That was reassuring. The fire had been noticed, and, one presumed, the fire department was already on its way.

My husband accelerated, thinking of the ferry. I thought of the fires that had ravaged Greece three years earlier. Then, flames had overtaken whole families as they tried to flee in their cars. Rescuers found the bodies of grandmothers and infants incinerated in their homes. The fires had threatened the ancient site of Olympia, breathing black ashes upon the white ruins and obliterating the surrounding vegetation. The authorities ordered the evacuation of the suburbs of Athens. When the rains finally came, vast stretches of countryside had been charred. The blackened corpses of entire olive orchards and forests scar the countryside even today.

At the cafĂ© in front of the ticket office at the port, we watched the smoke billowing up from the far side of the mountain. The ferry arrived on schedule and backed up to the quay. Scores of cars bounced off the ship onto the quay and we clanged our way up the ramp to be directed to a spot on the deck. Only after we’d left the car and taken our seats, did we look again at the mountains. The smoke was thicker and more ominous than ever.

With considerable excitement, the other passengers pointed to an approaching helicopter. A large container was slung below its belly. It dumped the liquid contents of the container onto the flames and then swung out over the bay. Slowly and loudly it settled itself down almost to the surface of the water. The wind from the propellers flattened the sea and sent spume in all directions. The container scooped up sea water and then the helicopter strained to lift it. Water splashed over the sides of giant bucket as the chopper heeled over and turned away in a wide arc. Meanwhile two fixed-wing aircraft joined the fight. Yet the fire raged on unimpressed.

Without warning, the ferry raised its ramps and departed. It nosed out into the Gulf of Laconia. Off our bows all was serene, Mediterranean beauty – bright blue seas occasionally crested by brilliant white, waves. On the opposite shore, white villages nestled in the contours of the distant hills barely discernable through the summer haze. Behind us, the smoke had transformed the entire island into the image of an active volcano: huge clouds of smoke rolled upwards to be torn away by the wind in a long, untidy plume. By the time we reached Neapoli it was impossible to distinguish smoke from haze, and on the evening news it was reported that man and his machines had contained the fire.

But, I wondered, what would it have been like in ancient times? – without the help of machines? If the fires even today can so easily run wild, what terror they must have wrought when there were no pump trucks, no helicopters and no aircraft. The climate was the same and the dried vegetation just as vulnerable to ignition, but there were no mobile phones or radios to get word to the authorities – whoever they were. And if even automobiles cannot outrun these fires when they are running, how could people on foot, cart and horse hope to outrun them? No wonder, fire was one of the four horses of the apocalypse. Something worth noting for future books on this part of the world….

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