Greek wildfires August 2021
FILE PHOTO: Locals evacuate the area with their animals as a wildfire rages in the suburb of Thrakomakedones, north of Athens, Greece, August 7, 2021. REUTERS/Giorgos Moutafis/File Photo

ATHENS (Reuters) – As angry Greeks criticize their government’s response to the wildfire devastation, the story of how Stelios Kokkinelis saved his own home is being used as an example of how the authorities let down the people.

Greece wildfires August 2021
FILE PHOTO: People board a ferry during evacuation as a wildfire burns in the village of Limni, on the island of Evia, Greece, August 6, 2021. Fires burnt uncontrollably for six days. Picture taken August 6, 2021. REUTERS/Nicolas Economou/File Photo

Stelios had built his three-storey house, in a suburb north of Athens, when he returned home after 25 years in South Africa.

This weekend flames threatened to engulf his precious home in the wooded area of Varympompi. He contacted emergency services but they failed to respond to his calls for help.

And so Stelios decided to ignore an evacuation order and take matters into his own hands. The 82-year-old told Reuters:

“I hid so they wouldn’t find me. I moved to the other side of my house and started to fight the fire with my own water, otherwise it would have gone.”

His daughter Eirini was in tears as she told of how she fled without knowing what had happened to her father, or whether the home she and her family shared with him would be destroyed. She said:

“If my father had not stayed, our house would have burned down,. The fire service was nowhere. Fortunately there were volunteers. I feel anger, nothing else.”

Greek South African Athens wildfire
Stelios and his daughter Eirini. Photo: Reuters video screenshot

Photos shared on social media of exhausted firefighters asleep on the ground, still dressed in the smoke-stained uniforms they wore to fight the flames, showed the strain the emergency services. Witnesses have described apocalyptic scenes as Athens and other parts of the country have been besieged by fire.

European countries send in help to battle devastating wildfires

Almost 1,000 firefighters, nine aircraft and 200 vehicles have been sent to Greece from other European countries (including France, Switzerland, Spain) and Egypt, to help battle devastating wildfires near Athens and elsewhere.

But as reinforcements arrived, and the army has been deployed, some Greeks have asked why local fire services needed help.

Greek wildfires August 2021
FILE PHOTO: A volunteer reacts as a wildfire burns in the village of Galatsona, on the island of Evia, Greece, August 9, 2021. REUTERS/Stelios Misinas/File Photo

Television reports and social media have featured angry commentary about the lack of firefighters to tackle blazes, mixed with pointed observations about the disproportionate number of police.

“Thanks to all the countries who have given firefighting assistance,” said one commenter on Twitter. “If you ever need cops, let us know”.

After a decade of austerity that cut into public services, Greek firefighting services are badly weakened, said Dimitris Stathopoulos, head of Greece’s firefighters federation. He said 5,000 firefighters needed to be hired immediately.

“We are constantly on alert,” Stathopoulos said. “In March, we had 10 days of floods, then snow. In Varympompi and in Evia, we’re going to be there for 20 days with 500 firefighters because these are dangerous times.”

water evaporated before reaching the flames

Temperatures were so high last week in the early stages of the Varympompi fire, that water dropped by fire-fighting aircraft evaporated before reaching the flames, he added. At one point last week (Tuesday), the mercury measured 47 degrees celsius, while drones recorded the ground temperature in downtown Athens at 55 degrees, according to the Guardian. Tomorrow will be a ‘cool’ 37 degrees.

Greek Government defends spending record

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said last week there would be a time for “criticism and self-criticism” over the way authorities responded to the fires, which have coincided with a string of extreme weather events across the world.

The United Nations panel on climate change warned on Monday that the world was dangerously close to runaway global warming.

Greek wildfires August 2021
FILE PHOTO: A man holding a hose is helped to climb a slope, as a wildfire burns in the village of Gouves, on the island of Evia, Greece, August 8, 2021. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo

In June, the Civil Protection Ministry announced a 1.7 billion-euro fire protection plan, funded mostly by the European Investment Bank and European Union, which includes replacing ageing Canadair fire-fighting aircraft and fire service hirings.

On Saturday, Akis Skertsos, a senior government official, responded to criticism that the government had not done enough, posting figures showing Greece well ahead of other Mediterranean countries for the number of water-bombing aircraft.

The wildfires have so far not caused nearly as many casualties as the blazes three years ago that killed more than 100 people, destroying public confidence in the leftwing Syriza government which lost the subsequent elections.

Although criticism by the opposition has been muted so far, public anger could continue long after the flames die down.

“The government should resign as soon as possible. They did absolutely nothing, zero,” said Makis Ladogiannakis, a 77-year-old resident of Pefki, in northern Evia, where a ferry waited to evacuate more people by sea. Thousands have already been evacuated from the island, which lies east of Athens, many now homeless after wildfires have burned uncontrollably for six days.

“Everyone is desperate. Everyone is disappointed,” says Makis.

According to Al Jazeera, the wildfires have burned more than 263,000 hectares (650,000 acres) of land – in Evia, Athens and Lakonia.

(By Lefteris Papadimas; Additional reporting by Stamos Prousalis and Karolina Tagaris; Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Mike Collett-White)