Fires near Greek capital of Athens
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John Mink
By: John Mink
2009-08-27

Homes, forests, and cultural heritages sites threatened by blazes

Fires near Greek capital of Athens
Central Athens engulfed in smoke from the fires. Photo by Christos Loufopoulos, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0
Fires near Greek capital of Athens
Located 39 kilometers northeast of Athens, the ancient Athenian port of Rhamnous is composed of the ruins of a Doric acropolis, dating to the 5th century BCE, which served as a fortress and garrison guarding twin ports which played an important economic role during the Peloponnesian War. Temples here were dedicated to the goddesses Thermis and Nemesis, with a sanctuary dedicated to the latter goddess (the personified spirit of divine punishment) being the central site of her worship in Greece. Whether, and to what extent, Rhamnous has been damaged by the fires is not yet known. Photo by Nefas Dicere, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0
Fires near Greek capital of Athens
FIRMS (Fire Information for Resource Management System) and Google Earth image showing locations of fire damage near Athens, documenting the weekend of August 21-22. Image in the public domain.
A series of devastating fires near Athens, Greece, have burned scores of homes and tens of thousands of hectares of pine forest and olive groves. They also placed several important archaeological sites in grave jeopardy, according to Greek officials. While these land and property losses were small compared to the Mediterranean nation's disastrous 2007 fires further out in the countryside, in which 77 people also died, the proximity of the most recent blazes to Greece's ancient (and still-thriving) capital city have endangered some of the country's most densely-populated areas and a number of vital heritage sites. The ancient Athenian port of Rhamnous and the 4th century BCE battlefield of Marathon are both located in the most highly-affected region, and the largest blaze began just north of the Marathon plain. The flames reputedly came within 50 yards of the Museum of Marathon, filled with artifacts of the decisive 490 BCE battle between Athens and Persia that helped establish the Classical nation-state as a dominant power in the region. Whether Rhamnous is damaged has not been reported at the time of this writing, though firefighters were still battling resurgent blazes threatening the ancient acropolis' ruins as of Tuesday, October 25th. Fire fighters were reportedly able to save the the 14th century CE Pantokrator Monastery from destruction, battling the flames surrounding it as a group of resident nuns refused to evacuate.

Gale-force winds blew through the region steadily over the weekend of August 21st-23rd, fueling the uncontrollable blazes as they consumed vast swaths of precious forest, farmland, and residential suburbs on the outskirts of Athens, Greece's storied capital. Though the winds died down by Monday the 24th, the extremely dry weather ensured that many scattered fires kept burning strongly, if more controllably for the exhausted and overextended firefighters who have been battling the flames around-the-clock since they began. The winds are, however, expected to pick up again over the remainder of the week, and the fire season is far from over.

The causes of the fires are not known at this time, though the Attica and Peloponnesian regions of Greece have frequently weathered devastating blazes that cause massive loss of property and forest as well as endangering the country's rich archaeological heritage. Smog has concurrently grown worse in the country as its carbon-filtering forests have been lost, and this in turn contributes to the acid rain which further erodes ancient structures, particularly the marble acropoleis that Greece is renowned for. Fires in Greece have increased in intensity and frequency in recent decades, a rise attributed variously to such factors as population sprawl, purposeful arson committed by unscrupulous landowners and animal herders seeking to clear forest for more development and pasture, and greater severity of drought due to global warming and overuse of water resources. Regional officials in the affected areas have strongly criticized the central government for perceived failures in preventing and battling these blazes. Officials in Athens strongly deny allegations of ill-preparedness, while public opinion on these issues is predicted to be a major factor in the upcoming national elections. Fortunately, overextended Grecian firefighting forces were boosted over the weekend by airborne support and international reinforcements from France, Italy, Spain, Cyprus, and Turkey, helping to douse the fires' spread.

Terrible tragedies such as these serve to remind us all just how important, and profoundly endangered, many of our most precious places are. We here at CyArk give our strongest hopes to these brave firefighters as they battle to save countless homes, ecologically vital forests, and invaluable national heritage sites of Greece in the present and the future.



References

Stillwell, Richard, ed., 1976. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites pp. 3817-3818. Princeton:Princeton University Press

Christian Science Monitor Global News Blog by Dan Murphy 08.24.09

New York Times: Thousands Flee Athens Fires by Anthee Carassava 08.23.09

Los Angeles Times: Greece fire threatens inhabited areas in Athens and near Marathon, from Associated Press 08.24.09

Al Jazerra: Greek Fire Slows as Winds Abate 08.24.09

Brisbane Times: Firefighters gain control of Athens blazes by John Hadoulis 08.25.09

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