The unsung heroes of a summer war

The smell of death has been spreading across Greece over the past few days – it is the smell of burnt earth, of trees turned to charcoal, of the charred remains of wild animals and birds. If the smell given off by damp earth after rainfall is a blessing, then the smell of a burning forest is certainly a curse. Even if we are far from the location of the blazes, television images bring the sound of dry branches crackling right into our homes. Water-dropping aircraft go haywire when temperatures rise above 40C, an expert told state channel Net earlier this week. The planes lose their aerodynamic stability and do not always respond to the handling of pilots. But it is not only our firefighting planes that are being pushed to their limits. Pilots too, some of whom fly from first light until after sunset, have come under far too much pressure. Before the tragedy on Evia earlier this week, when two firefighting pilots died in a crash at low altitude, a number of pilots had spoken to Mega channel from their base in Elefsina. «We are professionals,» one said. «We have to return the aircraft in good condition and we must return to our children alive.» These people are not playing the role of heroes. If they are to do their job, they must have a strong survival instinct. We don’t know what the two pilots who died earlier this week were thinking before they crashed to their deaths on Evia. What we do know is that they were not fighting fires to impress the public. They flew close to the flames, made the necessary «dive» and were suddenly enveloped by the smokey blaze. It is a kind of war that we are experiencing these past few days, many experts say. The aforementioned firefighters were victims of this undeclared war. They are war heroes without knowing it – heroes in a battle against countless forest fires but also against land grabbers and developers, as well as citizens who decide to build their homes on forestland. This is a broader war, against a state model for growth which has legitimized arbitrariness; and here I am not just referring to the countless «illegal» homes that were built to accommodate a burgeoning population, but the monstrous residential complexes being constructed on the outskirts of our few remaining forests. Nearly three decades ago, the writer Nikos Politis wrote an article for Kathimerini describing tourism as «descending upon the Greek countryside…like the black death.» What he saw then continues now in the name of «development» as the concrete spreads and the maisonettes spring up like mushrooms.

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