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‘In Athens there is ash everywhere’

In Ancient Greece, it was customary for messengers to climb to the top of a mountain to light a fire when they needed to send an urgent signal, usually a warning about an enemy approaching. If life is accident and organic matter, I come from a country of distress calls and earthquakes, pine trees and rampaging summer fires.

In Athens, there is ash everywhere from the wildfire in north-east Attica. Text alerts sent by the authorities warn that the risk of further fires remains high. It is uncanny, a feeling like no other, to wake up and see the sky not blue but dark with smoke.

Greek newspapers report that horses from a nearby riding club were carried away in special containers when the fire got too close, which is a sign of planning and co-ordination, reason to be optimistic despite the profound devastation. Still, there are but a few facts at this stage, as the post mortem has not properly begun.

In the evening, I drive to Ekali, a suburb 10km away from the fire, to leave my three children with their grandmother so they can take the ferry to an island early in the morning. There is a convoy of cars in the opposite lane as I’m driving, but I push the thought of possible evacuation away. On my way back, I hear on the radio that residents of two nearby suburbs have received the notification to leave their properties and clear the area. I call my son, who tries to reassure me that everything is under control: they’re ready to get in the car and go to the port any minute if the order comes through.

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My grandfather, who had fought in the Greek army’s disastrous campaign to take Ankara, told my grandmother only one story about the massacres of Smyrna, when the multi-ethnic city burnt down in 1922. The same incident, which may be apocryphal, also appears in Dido Sotiriou’s Farewell Anatolia (1962), a landmark Greek novel about the fall of Hellenism in Asia Minor.

When the fire started, after the Turkish military had captured the city, everyone rushed to the waterfront. A woman in panic went to the crib to collect her baby, then ran to the streets. Only when she had reached the boats, watching the flames from a distance, did she realise that in her shock, she had mistakenly picked up a pillow, leaving the baby behind.

Everything suggests that the authorities are in command, hence there have been only two fatalities so far, from a falling electricity pole and smoke inhalation, but I can’t help feeling that I made the worst call of my life, taking my children closer to the fire in the name of holiday plans. During the hours before they leave for Piraeus at dawn, I’m fully dressed with my shoes on, holding my car keys.

Wildfires are raging across the world, while Greece is experiencing its worst heatwave in more than 30 years. For a whole week, you can see Evia burning from the east coast of the mainland. On that long and narrow island, blazes balloon through villages, thousands of people have been evacuated and electricity pylons have crashed to the ground. Firefighters, the coastguard and parts of the army have been deployed, but flames keep springing back, devouring compact conifer forests. Pine needles can fuel a fire to go out of control.

Police help firefighters in Thrakomakedones, near Mount Parnitha, north of Athens, on August 7 © Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP via Getty Images

Forest has been burnt all the way to the shore. The US Navy is sending reconnaissance aircraft, while Switzerland, France, Israel and other countries are sending helicopters, firefighters and water-bombing planes. So much is already destroyed. Rabbits, sheep, dogs have been burnt, as well as churches and houses.

In July 2018, 103 people burnt to death in their homes, in their cars or as they tried to get to the sea in the conflagration of Mati, an overbuilt area 24km from the centre of Athens. It still casts a long shadow over Greece, a blank haunting us all.

Once my kids are safe on the ferry, I drive to Mati to attend a memorial service for my uncle, who recently died of Covid-19. I’m dreading the landscape I’m about to encounter but there are new houses, rebuilt with government subsidies, and there is vegetation.

Hours later, at the airport, an announcement is made that the reason the temperature is not cool enough is due to the low supply of energy, which has been sapped by the firefighting efforts. When I was growing up in the 1980s, there were fires in Greece every August, and one became used to the blend of beauty and danger: the sound of cicadas and endless blue of the Aegean mingling with arson and natural disasters. This time it feels as if the fires might swallow everything and once more I feel guilty returning to the greenness of England.

We know that fire is a chemical process, not an element, as my ancestors believed. We know that in 1950, smoke from forest fires in British Columbia left particles in the air that interfered with the spectrum, letting only blue light through. At dusk, in Canada and parts of Europe, a bright blue moon appeared. We know that cartographers call the blank spaces on maps sleeping beauties. What if there is hope in that?

If you climbed to any mountaintop in Greece this week, you would see flames raging through forests or thousands of hectares already carbonised, depending on where you stand. By now we have more sophisticated means than fire signalling to communicate but if, ever so slightly, we have reached the point where the medium is the message, we stand warned.

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