Forest Fire, Kassandra peninsula, Greece
At seven thirty that evening, E and I had met her mum for dinner at the Roma Pizzeria on the main street of Pefkochori. After four days of sunbathing, swimming and backgammon in nearby Polichrono, we were pretty much resigned to a change of weather, so when the sky above the sea darkened to a dull oyster colour, we just thought it was the afternoon's thunderstorm come back with its mates. Not so, the waiter told us; this was smoke from a small fire in the hills above the town; it was old news; it had been burning for a couple of hours already. About half an hour later, the electricity in the main street flickered, came back, flickered again and went out for good. It felt thrilling, sitting there munching our pizzas on the darkened terrace, watching the lightning flashing, and the palm trees blowing and the tourists scurrying; like the prelude to a hurricane. A thin white ash began to drift onto our plates and clothes, and we went out to look at the fire. Now, for the first time the sky to the north was lit up with an eerie pink glow. When I was fifteen, and more than regularly gloomy, I used to spend hours in my room staring at a reproduction of Bruegel's painting "The Triumph of Death"; I now realised I was looking at it again.
The fire seemed to be moving closer to the road back to Polichrono, so we decided to get our bus home before the road became impassable. All of a sudden, there was a hot wind all around us; it felt like it was coming from every direction at once. The air was thick with ash and soot. The traffic out of Polichrono and Hanioti grew heavier, and tailbacks began to form. Someone said that the fire had reached the road. A fuel truck pushed its way through the jam with blaring horns. Now, tourists carrying children and cases began to stream out of the hotels- Germans and Austrians mostly, but also Czechs, Serbs, Russians and Brits. Some of them got into their cars and drove further down the peninsula; others just walked as fast as they could into the countryside or towards the beach. Motorbikes weaved in and out among the fleeing pedestrians. A guy in a yellow muscle-top loaded his cases into the boot of a hatchback, then sat in on top of them. People were starting to do stupid, panicked things, and there seemed to be no police around to calm the situation down.
E's mum phoned her sister Katerina, and asked her to pick us up at their flat in the old town. As we walked uphill we found ourselves pushing against another tide of fleeing people- tourists mostly, but now also local people using towels as masks. Then the crowds were gone. The smoke and ash were much thicker up here, and in the dark, hushed streets, you got an inkling of how it must have felt in the final hours of Pompeii. At last we turned a corner and saw the fire full on for the first time; it was wilder and stronger than I had imagined, and less than 500 metres away. The flames didn't roll along at ground level but perched like birds at the top of the tallest trees. Even at this distance you could feel the toasty warmth on your calves and lower arms; it felt pleasant and cosy, like when you sit too close to a campfire. Two kids on a motorbike shared a cigarette and watched the flames in silence. I had always thought of forest fires as incredibly noisy, but my strongest memory of this scene is the quiet and the calm. The smoke was too thick to wait here, though, and we were hardly halfway to the flat- finally we got through to E's aunt and arranged to meet her at the post office on the main street instead. As we returned downhill, we passed the last few departing families. A father packing luggage into a car screamed at a little kid, who had almost run away into the dark.
We settled down at the water fountain in the main street. E. filled up a couple of bottles, and I tried to wash the soot out of my eyes. A shirtless, middle aged guy wrapped a wet towel around his head and set off stoutly into the woods- no fire, it seemed, could ever withstand the fury of a bare-chested Greek. Two teenage boys brought a clutch of plastic bottles to the fountain and filled them up. "Wanna buy some water?" they asked us. "Only three euro." Then they set off to hawk the bottles to the crowds on the beach. Every five minutes or so, I crossed the road and checked on the progress of the fire. By the time Katerina arrived, it looked as if it had pulled away from Hanioti and Polichrono, and was heading for the old town of Pefkochori instead. (In the end, it got to within 100 metres of the town, but firemen checked it before it reached its first hotel.)
The rest of the night played out as a series of more or less surreal car trips up and down the peninsula. We originally headed south from Pefkochori, but the fire was travelling faster than the gridlocked traffic, and at one stage threatened to outflank us , so we turned tail and headed north back through Pefkochori and on to Polichrono, along the newly re-opened road. This was the landscape dripping with fire from the first paragraph, and this was also the place where people had suffered the most- in Hanioti, halfway between the two towns, the fire had jumped the road and travelled down as far as the beach. The first time I saw any emergency personnel was at half-eleven in Polichrono- squads of black-clad police were holding up traffic and tv crews, and waving through fire-engines, and blowing whistles and acting both enormously busy and enormously aggrieved, in the classic manner of people who know that they've fucked up already and, whatever they do from this point in, are still going to get their asses chewed tomorrow morning. We stay here for an hour, but then the wind changes and sends plumes of thick acrid smoke into the town. By one o'clock we are on the move again, this time further north, to a German run resort that Katerina knows, where we will spend the next day drinking Fanta lemon among dauntingly cheerful families, who know what time aerobics is at, and when the kiddies' karaoke final is taking place, but who have no idea that half the book of Exodus just took place thirty minutes down the road. That late night journey is the strangest of all, a kind of lulling comedown through gradually less worried towns- from Kriopigi, which is basically on a war footing, through Kalithea, where plenty of people are still up in bars and cafes watching news reports- but also hanging out on bikes and playing test your strength games and generally acting the maggot- and into Aphitos, which is completely shut down at this late hour, no signs of alarm at all, apart from the stream of cars and buses coming through, and, to the south, the thinnest sliver of pink just about grazing the horizon.