Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Fire (Φωτιά - Πυρκαγιά)

I feel lucky to be sitting in my office at work today, after what we went through in the very early hours of this morning. The problems didn't really start at 3am when I noticed the fire - they started at about 5pm on the previous day, when my husband told me to raise the canvas awnings over the  balconies due to the strong winds that had begun to blow. Spring brings with it many high winds, but rarely southerlies (hot strong African winds); climate change has had this effect on Crete - it has made our once hospitable climate very dry and dusty, with unseasonably high temperatures.

It was an early night for me as I was exhausted. The painter had been working in the kitchen for the last two days, which made it difficult to cook. After coming home from work, I began clearing up the plastic sheeting, sweeping away the dust and getting the kitchen organised for cooking once again. To my horror, I discovered that I had forgotten that I was supposed to be defrosting the deep freeze - one pie was ruined (it will be cooked for the dog's food), but I managed to save two pies (we'll be eating lots of spanakopita over the next few days). Just before I was about to start cooking the pies, I smelt a chemical odour coming from the oven - so I had forgotten to clean the oven too! I began cooking φακές (lentil soup) which is a fuss-free slow-cook Greek cuisine staple, and we even managed to goet to the dermatologist (it's free melanoma checkup week in Greece). All's well that ends well, I thought.

We had secured everything that could suffer damage in high winds, and had then closed both the shutters and the windows before we went to bed. Normally, we leave the wooden windows partly open on hot nights, but in high winds, this is not possible as it causes doors to slam and nothing stays in place in the house. Not to mention the dust. I couldn't sleep at all - that wasn't just any kind of wind: it was 10 on the Beaufort scale and 31C and only 3am. The temperature is raised by the hot strong dust-carrying African winds. So I just lay in bed listening to the wind blowing and trying to hear any unusual sounds. Wooden shutters do not seal out sounds - if we had aluminium doors and windows, I would probably have slept through it all, as they are good sound insulators.

At 3am, I heard a car come down the road beeping systematically. We often hear blaring music coming out of road rage drivers' cars, but this sounded more urgent, like a warning, as the car drove slowly along the road. There were people on the road: "Get out now, παιδί μου!" I got up feeling terrified and went to the kitchen - the only room with no shutters. I couldn't see anything untoward. So I opened the back door of the kitchen which was on the other side of the room. The sky was bright orange behind the two-story house located across from our house while the air was thick with dust and smoke. Lighted sparks and ash were flying onto our staircase. I went back into the house to wake up the family, who I now know love to fall into deep slumber. (Another neighbour told us that he was woken up by the police banging on his door to tell him to get out.) My son's bedroom was already smelling of smoke, and the windows had not even been opened.

The video shows the fire that was burning right below our house. 

The fire was burning behind the houses on the opposite side of the street. The fire brigade had been informed, but they had not arrived yet: this fire had spread very rapidly, and we were to find out later that it had a number of fronts, all burning in different spots in the same general area. Explosions could be heard in the distance. Greek houses are made of concrete, so they don't burn down completely in a fire - they blacken, and anything that can catch fire and burn does (eg plastic paint, wooden furniture, foam insulation,), but the basic structure remains. Concrete also acts as a wind and fire break - we had that going for us, as well as the fact that the houses which were adjacent to the burning fields were separated from us by a tarmacked road. The wind direction was also in our favour - it was blowing the wind southeast, whereas our house faces northwest. Our house does not border fields. Our firewood hoardings were the only real problem - my husband began hosing everything down, from the road to the soil in our garden to the walls of the house.

I never miss a moment to photograph whatever I can, but I met my match yesterday. There were other more important things on my mind. This photo was taken outside our house, on high zoom, as the fire spread eastwards, to the neighbouring village. It felt the safest time to snap a shot, when the danger was all over - for us, at least.
The fire brigade came, but they could only do so much for the area. As the fire was spreading, aided by the high winds, through the sparks flying onto the parched crops, the firemen constantly moved about among the different locations. Their priority was areas where occupied houses were burning - people are more important than things. A policeman came by and told us to get ready for evacuation if necessary, so we told the children who were by now crying to get dressed. At first they were worried about their grandmother. Then my daughter asked: "What about the house?" And her father replied: "Who cares?"

I think that made a big impression on them. We don't care about the things we care about the people. We can rebuild everything, but we can't bring back everyone.
Some victims of the hot winds included my balcony herb garden - the coriander and rocket didn't make it, and the parsley plant has also been affected. So far, the garden crops are doing OK.
Despite losing out on a lot of evening sleep, we still got up this morning to get to our jobs. While driving the children to school, I saw the aftermath of the fire. Trees suffered the most damage, as did a number of businesses on the main road; no casualties were reported, but some people have lost their home, or at least a part of it. Our house is no this morning w filled with a smoky smell and the ashes that came in and out of the house as we opened the door to check on what was happening. It's a small price to pay for getting away with out lives. We're all still wondering what caused the fire to break out - we only know why it spread so quickly.

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