Greece wildfires: Family hid in a corner praying for their lives as wildfire hit village

Despina with her father. ITV News/Natalie Wright
Despina Palios and her father Stratos surveying the damage after they managed to save their family home. Credit: ITV News/Natalie Wright
  • Words by ITV News Foreign Affairs Producer Natalie Wright

This time last week, we left London for Athens hearing of fires burning out of control across southern Greece.

Landing on Wednesday afternoon, it was immediately clear that the fires were widespread and serious as the air hung heavy and dark over the control tower of Athens Airport.

On Thursday, we set out for the drive to the island of Evia. Many of the fires, which had burned through the two previous nights, had been put out and it seemed as though it was coming to an end. Of course, we would later know this not to be true.

In the village of Rovies, we met Despina Palios and her father Stratos surveying the damage.

Like many of the older generation, Stratos had almost no English and so Despina translated for us, telling us that as the fire descended the mountain side, there was no official help to be found, and the job of saving homes and lives would be down to the villagers themselves.

Landing in Greece on Wednesday afternoon, the air hung heavy and dark over the control tower of Athens Airport. Credit: ITV News/Natalie Wright

In the frantic minutes before the fire reached the houses, Stratos and his next door neighbour cut down as many trees as they could to form a small firebreak.

They used entirely inadequate garden hoses in an almost futile attempt to put out the first of the flames and then they hid in dark corners praying for their lives as the burning orange wall hit the village.

The family home was saved, thanks to Stratos’ heroics, but nothing could be done for the lush forest, the village playground, doctor’s surgery, nor the English school.

Regardless of the language barrier, it was easy to understand the horrors and terrifying ordeal he had been through. Despina quietly told me that her father was a true hero and I’m pretty sure that the wetness in her eyes wasn’t from the smoke in the air all around us.

As the weekend approached, fires which had previously been brought under control, were once again raging in the northern outskirts of Athens itself.

Smoke billowing from a hillside in Greece. Credit: ITV News/Natalie Wright

We headed to a high point to try and get a sense of the scale. As we were filming, there was a piercing alarm that was coming from all of our mobile phones. It was one of several alerts from the Greek authorities warning people of the extreme dangers and ordering citizens to stay out of any forested areas.

I spoke to a group of young men who had also come to the top of the hill to look out over the frightening spread of the smoke bellowing from the hillsides.

They told me it had not yet reached their suburb but that they were packed and ready to go if and when the evacuation orders came in.

ITV News Correspondent Ben Chapman reports from an area hit by a wildfire. Credit: ITV News/Natalie Wright

Who knows how many people in Athens’ northern suburbs were living this waiting game during those days, but the lines of fire damage were as stark as if someone had drawn them with a ruler. Sometimes, this was because of obvious reasons like a firebreak or a main road stopping the spread, otherwise they were seemingly random.

People were living at the mercy of a gust of wind blowing a burning pine cone across the road and igniting a further flare up.

On Saturday, we visited the village of Kryoneri where the last of the north Athens blazes was slowly coming under control.

British teams sent to Greece to help tackle wildfires Credit: AP

One of the starkest images that will stay with me from the whole week was a small house we found which had suffered extraordinary damage.

There was a plastic garden hose, plugged into the taps, abandoned on the front steps. Burnt, and melted in places, it told a story of fighting to the end before the owner of this little corner of Athens’ vast suburbs must have admitted defeat and fled for his or her life.

By Sunday, the fires were playing havoc with Athens' power supply. Traffic lights were giving up entirely, causing the already frenetic Athenian traffic to become a game of survival of the bravest.

But it was out in the forests of Evia that the real damage was taking place. The fires had fuelled back up causing yet more damage to the already scarred island.

A road lined with trees that have been burnt by a wildfire in Greece. Credit: ITV News/Natalie Wright

Earlier in the week, the Greek prime minster had warned that it would be impossible to save all four of the following: lives, property, infrastructure and the natural environment.

And so, it’s the last on the list which has really suffered. Though the loss of human life has been mercifully small, it will be a while before we know the toll taken on wildlife and ecosystems, particularly on Evia.

On Monday, we stood a distance back from a new area of burning pine trees and saw so many small birds flying around the inferno, either confused or desperately trying to save nests, we can’t be sure. But nevertheless, we felt helpless standing there knowing many of them would soon perish.

Driving north through the island in some places, it looked almost more like an eery ski resort with the ground covered in white ash but with gnarly black stumps where thick green trees had previously stood proud. The roads were a mess, littered with ash, melted road signs, chopped down trees and collapsed power cables.

A road covered in white ash and lined by burnt out trees

Meanwhile we spoke on the phone to a bee keeper in the Peloponnese region who was beside himself trying to save his bees, the workers responsible for Greece’s famous honey.

He told us he had three sets of hives in different areas and was doing everything he could to save them.

When we finally headed back to Athens, all the roads had been cut off because of new fires so we headed to the ferry which had spent much of the early part of the week evacuating residents to safety on the mainland.

As we turned the car engine off for the short journey across the fringes of the Aegean Sea, a family hurried on board carrying what they could in suitcases. Their biggest piece of luggage was a bird cage with their pet budgie squawking inside, not entirely oblivious of the carnage around him.

A family hurries on board a ferry carrying their pet budgie

As we leave Greece behind for now, I’m struck by the vast number of theories and rumours spreading almost as quickly as the fires themselves. People are angry and looking for someone to blame.

In time, it will become clear exactly who this anger will be directed towards as accusations fly of arson, poor preparation and slow response times in some areas.

Despina, Stratos’ daughter, messaged me on Wednesday morning to say the fires are almost out.

She wrote: "Now we are safe since everything has already been burnt. Many people have lost their houses, their animals and their fields. Delays destroyed us and a whole ecosystem."