Greek Fire: With a New Byzantine Twist!

By Andrew Leech (

Certainly the hottest and saddest news for August was that of the fires that devastated over 3000 sq. klm. of our forestland, cost over 60 lives and burnt many houses. Much has been said and even more written about this, so I will not add to what you have already read.

Personally, I spent part of the summer on the reserve list of the fire-fighting helicopters as an interpreter for the foreign pilots who were helping us out. There was great demand for pilots who knew the Greek airways, could read maps and were familiar with Greek radio protocol, to liaise with both Athens and local ground controls – as well as the fire department – and act as interpreters in English and French. There were pilots from the US, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, France, Italy and Germany involved and, although Athens Control was usually very good, there were times when they couldn’t understand the accents in English. Two examples I recall were Norwegian English and Italian English. The problems did not lie in the language used, but solely in the accent and intonation used; something I found very interesting as a teacher and linguist. It seemed the main difficulty lay in following the up/down sing/song undulation of the Italian and Norwegian speech patterns, causing Athens controllers to constantly repeat: “Please say again.”

It is only after you have been a crew member in a water carrying Ericksson helicopter that you really appreciate how terrifying a large fire is. As you slowly descend into the smoke, unable to see clearly and dependent on ground information as to where you are going and where to drop the water, the helicopter is caught and bucks violently in the savage winds and updrafts generated by the flames below. All is grey and swirling – like being lost in a large storm cloud – as you peer anxiously for a sign of the ground below. You sense the fumes and heat coming into the aircraft and try not to choke as you descend and carefully follow the instructions from below, knowing full well that if you release the water at the wrong moment you could easily kill innocent people below.

Then the release and the craft, lighter by a few tons, savagely leaps into the air and you head for a refill, your heart pounding and fervently thanking the Lord you’d made it (some didn’t and joined the victim list)

According to the media there were over 360 fires and the majority are believed to have been arson – for a variety of reasons ranging from clearing local land to making space available for the construction of the new Egnatia Highway down the Peloponnese. In all, a very dirty twisted, Byzantine business that is still very unclear as to the real reasons for the conflagration.

My own feelings are that:

(1) the law should be changed to raise the category of forest arson to that of treason against the state, together with the full penalties for treason.

(2) that all assets (houses, companies, bank accounts etc) belonging to a convicted arsonist, or the one who hired him, be forfeit to the state as reparations for the damage and victims.

(3) that any civil servant (or government official) who approves construction on burnt land without a full and open committee investigation be treated as a co-arsonist, also losing all family possessions.

(4) that any illegal buildings be demolished as soon as work is started on them.

(5) Confiscation of assets penalties could also be extended to contractors involved in the building, or supplying building materials, on the basis of “contracting without viewing a valid construction licence.” In other words, the supplier must be given a copy of the valid licence/adeia to attach to the invoice of the materials supplied. And no invoice issued, of course, means no licence or VAT paid (a double illegality)

People must be made to realize that arson must be classed as a form of terrorist activity and investigated with the same diligence that was given to apprehending the November 17 group. Furthermore, since we live in a democracy the will of the electorate should prevail; and if the majority want to protect their forests, their climate and their country this will should be followed. The only difference between this form of terrorism and others is that it is purely for financial gain. There is no viable ideology behind it. In many ways what we are facing is a kind of civil war: the few members of the ‘Want More at Any Cost’ Brigade against the ‘Don’t bother me, I’m sleeping’ greater public, with only a few really concerned individuals standing between them.

How much more forest needs to be burnt, how many more lives need to be lost, how many more houses need to go up in smoke before we really accept we are at war and must fight … and win?

Only by recognizing arson for what it really is and totally smashing those behind it, are we going to take any step to preserve one of the main current glories of this country – its wonderful climate between late September and early July. You cannot just watch events on TV, tut-tut mildly and turn to another channel. Everyone must ask themselves what they can do to help, teachers must discuss the events and their implications in class, and the students must be made to carry on this dialogue at home.

Of course, if you are all happy to let the climate change much quicker that it would, to totally live in air-conditioning from May – October, to breathe a humid, heavy concrete-generated atmosphere and to watch Greece’s impoverishment as its tourism declines, then so be it (and tourists will go elsewhere). That kind of physical and mental laziness just puts a person on the same level as the arsonists.

(Posted December 2007. Previously published in ELT News November 2007.)

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