Marathon inferno

August 6, 2013

Marathon, Greece

By Yannis Behrakis

It was a typical August day in Athens — very hot and windy. I was driving around town on my scooter when I stopped next to a fire brigade jeep at a traffic light. An officer in the vehicle asked me if I was happy with my scooter. I said: “yes I’m happy. Are you happy with the weather conditions?” He smiled and said: “I’m sure we will have many forest fires these days. There are a few burning in central Greece as we speak.”

It was less than an hour later when I received a message on my mobile phone from the fire brigade about a fire in Marathon, some 40-45 kilometers (25 miles) northeast of Athens, where the Athenians fought the Persians in a historic battle in 490 BC. Sources said that police and the fire brigade had started evacuating a hamlet in the area. I took my gear and a few masks for the dust and raced to the area on my scooter. It was really windy and for the last few miles, the traffic on Marathon Avenue was heavy — both ways — as some people were fleeing and others were trying to reach their homes and protect them from what looked to be a fire out of control. Police were stopping vehicles from reaching the area to provide clear access to fire engines and fire brigade troops. In order to pass through, I drove closely to a speeding ambulance and managed to pass all the police check points.

The area was covered by smoke and the one main road was full of water containers, police cars, fire fighters and a few local volunteers. I left the scooter off road in a field and rushed into the forest behind a group of fire fighters and a couple of volunteers. It was intense. The strong wind would change direction again and again, burning trees and thick bush as helicopters and fire fighting planes flew overhead dropping water. The heat was extreme and the smoke made it hard to see. In some cases, I was taking pictures unable to see as the smoke made my eyes watery and sore.

I asked the commanding officer of the unit how far away the houses were located. He looked around and said: “I’m not sure, maybe 500 meters?” The visibility was only 20 meters. Later we realized that a house was less than 70 meters to the west of where we were standing.

Suddenly, the wind changed direction again and blew strong gusts. In a few seconds the fire had surrounded us and some trees close by caught fire, sending flames up in the sky as high as a five-story building in an unexpected inferno. The noise from the approaching fire, the extreme heat and the smoke created a Hollywood movie scene. The verses from a Christian Orthodox prayer came to my ears — I was shocked!

One of the fire fighters or volunteers, it was hard to judge, was mumbling a prayer near me. The fire was “eating” the oxygen around us, making breathing difficult. I thought: “this is not good” and looked around for escape routes.

The commanding officer screamed to his men to keep calm and to stop using the last few gallons of water. “Keep it for us,” he said while he was trying to communicate with the planes flying overhead in a last-ditch effort to save his men from a very dangerous situation. I kept taking pictures and within a few minutes the fire had change direction again, allowing an opening to escape. The fire fighters, who had run out of water, picked up their equipment, jumped in their vehicles and offered me a ride out of the inferno.

I must say they were very brave and they were happy for me to be with them to show their ordeal to the world. I walked around the area taking pictures of the burning forest and the people — both fire fighters and local residents trying to extinguish the fire. I talked to people to try to find out more about their situation. At around 16:30 when the fire was under control, I decided to go back to Athens and send my pictures. I realized I had been in the area for more than four hours. The bad news was that about 10 houses and a big part of the local forest had burned. Most importantly nobody was hurt.

I finished filing my pictures at around 21:30. I returned home feeling like I had lost a friend…

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