Post Rafina fires … “I saved my family and property” one family’s story

October 10th is annual World Mental Health day (WHO-MentalHlth) and all that Falls upon us may include recent or past traumatic events, including the Rafina “Mati” fire of July 2018 (see past post ‘Ashes to Ashes‘). As psychosocial and public health professionals we refer to post-symptoms including anxiety and depression, loss of sleep etc. which may be indicative of a post-traumatic stress disorder after a shocking or life-threatening event. Last September I interviewed and photographed one woman and her property in Rafina, 10 minutes away from “Mati” where approximately 100 people lost their lives in July 2018.

Fire moves fast, mostly passing on the ground or heat melting  leaves from trees and plants, or parts of homes.  We heard so many stories of ‘survival’ of people jumping into the sea and swimming for hours to be rescued by the Hellenic Coast Guard, or running down stone pathways away from the fire. Just a few hours…. that was the time it took for utter devastation. This post focuses on survival. How one woman’s story of saving her home and property with her family.   Eleftheria (her name means ‘freedom’ in Greek) is in her 70’s and she made it through using prevention smarts, quick courageous actions during the event, and likely one who has high health literacy.

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This close….I saved my family and property.

Traveling to their home I did not know what to expect.  Realizing the last time I visited the area was the beginning of July, coming ‘this close’ to the now tragically famed “Mati” fire where many people died, many lost their property.  What I encountered left me open-mouthed.  This family’s home was completely surrounded by ashes — several homes and surrounding land were burned to the ground. A few streets down there were blackened charcoal regions, houses with burned windows in a corner part near one of the small ports nearby — there an elderly couple died of smoke inhalation.  They did not know each other — but it came this close — it could have been them….

To my amazement, as we walked around their four-acre land only a few trees were burned, though clearly evidence of heat-fire having passed as if on the surface of the earth’s skin… Now only happy animals play or search for food in this family’s fields.  This includes 40 chickens (only one was lost in the fire because it got scared and wandered off), two dogs — a shepherd and a hound, almost all bee hives were untethered.  I sat down with Eleftheria to hear her family’s story, what they did and how…. in hindsight they took risks but they managed to stay out of harm’s way near cemented parts of the home (like their basement) — we now understand for the area there was no clear evacuation plan of the region by the local municipality or media. As a matter of fact most families watching the news that day thought that the fires were only happening in the Peloponnese in Kineta, and from Pendeli (in Attica) fires moved quick as if in a large downward ski slope all the way trough Rafina, to the Mati area.

“It took two hours”, “I thought it was the end of my parents” said her daughter, “I thought it was the end…” said her husband who is now over 95 years old.  But Eleftheria kept moving fast, protecting the animals, using water, throwing dirt or using large branches and wool type blankets to put out fires.  As she says, the primary reason they survived was due to prevention.  Some neighbors who do not maintain their field or surrounding areas to their home had much damage done. In thinking of around the-year prevention, she shared these tips and actions:

  1. clear bushes and surrounding trash, tall grasses, cut down trees year-round, especially during the fire season (summer, dry months)
  2. some plants/trees like cactus fruit, fig trees, aloe vera prevent fire from spreading due to their deep roots which keep moisture in — maintain and plant more of them!
  3. bee hives should have a solid type foundation away from tall grasses if possible
  4. glass windows closed — wooden or plastic panels pulled away so that fire does not pass, and any melting doesn’t prevent doors from opening (for quick escapes)
  5. water storage areas (wells, containers) replenishing and cleaning fire equipment and extinguishers once a year as maintenance
  6. evacuation route pre-planned if possible (knowing the area, clear road/route signs)

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Eleftheria gives me a jar of honey taking a pose for a photograph. I am happy that she, her family, and all the animals she cares for and loves, made it through this tragedy safe and sound….. may we continue sharing lessons for locals as well as our governments to look at “lessons learned” towards improving communication and better planning efforts.

We deserve better.

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Ashes to ashes…tragedy befalls us

Tragedy befalls us or does it? in Greek «τραγωδία» is a word referring to a very sad situation that doesn’t have a very happy conclusion as it leads to suffering and most often death. When we say “befalls” it refers to things that happen by fate or chance. In the ancient world there were perfect explanations for everything, and usually involved ‘gods’ or other deities and mere mortals often trying somehow to make things “right” as they raise for us ethical or real life dilemmas.

Taking a recent trip with a group of colleagues and friends to the ancient theater of Epidaurus, we experienced one of the most famous of Sophocles’ plays “Electra” which the wise poet wrote towards the end of his career playing up the post-trauma of the Trojan war in the house of Mycenaean King Agamemnon (more here: classical literature ‘Elektra’). Though many directors change the structure of the plays to make them more to modern standards, this version was truly respectful of the storyline. More importantly we FELT the pain and inner struggle of the characters…I can still hear the drums beating as fast as my heart in the evening darkness as the actors in unison walked slowly with floating robes like solemn soldiers on a mission.

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Concluding the play Elektra, Epidaurus Summer 2018 Festival

This ancient theater in the valley of the Peloponnese is an acoustical marvel, and many world famous actors have passed through including Kevin Spacey as King Richard III (by William Shakespeare) honoring the ancient tradition with exceptional performance — glimpses can be had on this ‘World Stage’ clip.

I still recall Elektra’s brother Orestes’ blood-stained arms, the circles of ashes made in Elektra’s frenzy. Ashes to ashes, from dust to dust, this indeed is all we are made of. How ironic that the very next day we would be witnessing real-time tragedies of fire and ashes with almost 100 people dead in the ‘eye’ (mati) of Rafina, a seaside community outside of Athens (coincidentally the most losses in a fire since WWII), multitudes of animals, properties and nature burned within a matter of hours…. in the days following rainstorms and flooded streets in many parts of Greece as well as a “state of emergency” in California fires on the other side of the planet this year with several firefighters already dead and almost 100,000 acres of land burned to the ground.  Apparently since last year a sobering 60 servicemen have lost their lives on duty from such things like falling trees, bulldozers, etc. (more in the Mercury News article)

Unfortunately, tragedy befell Greece, and this is due to several factors in my humble opinion —

  • communication  breakdowns — in many countries in a state of emergency the military and the government have the right to take over a situation that is out of hand and work directly with media and municipalities.
  • organization and planning — ditto for this, but we know in the summer with high winds fires are constantly being set off, what are we doing to monitor beyond forest volunteers?  what about having a ‘drone watch’? See aerial surveillance for legislatures.
  • the “oh brother” syndrome («ωχ αδελφέ μου») — really now, you ARE global citizens so act like one!
  • environmental preparedness and social marketing — cutting down overgrowth, keeping water hydrants functioning, a system of communication (sirens, media buzz sound, megaphones), volunteers patrolling forests. One favorite character that was ‘built in’ U.S. culture was Smokey the bear to ‘prevent wildfires’ including some practical how-to steps…
  • health literacy about fires — taking care with outdoor fires (beach, camp, etc.), understanding that plastic and other waste (that people often leave near bushes on the sides of the roads) can be ‘fuel’ for any set fire.  If near a fire and no access to water hoses or water (many people were saved because they went to sea) keeping wet or wool blankets, crawling on the ground to avoid smoke inhalation, having adequate fire drills (and alternate with earthquake drills in schools once a year at least!), the need to have smoke detectors as well as functioning fire hydrants, firemen equipped with supplies (addressing shortages in Greece), using volunteers effectively, understanding how important time is when there are high winds…..moving quickly is of the utmost importance.

This tragedy could have happened to any government (or political party) but the situation was all too familiar to the fires back in 2007… it was purposeful arson in many parts that also ended in tragedy. However we know that prior to 2007 the persons responsible for the fire brigade planning in the country seemed to have more clear plans to make clear paths for the fires not to ‘jump’, cutting down overgrown trees, etc.  There are so many unpaved roads, no street signs, no functioning fire hydrants (or none at all) and the list goes on and on. Notably when systems don’t work (systems), we need to test and change them to be more effective as public safety and the public’s health should override any individual ‘rights’ this is why public health law exists!

What’s left now for many are feelings of emptiness and anger for many (typical of grief and post-traumatic symptoms that can range from loss of sleep to anxiety or the need to self-medicate). Grief or “bereavement” Counseling is needed and it is important to continue support groups and understand that even those watching the news may have anxiety or worse panic attack type reactions (children are in particular vulnerable to anxiety so it’s important to discuss with them ways to feel safe and express their sad or angry feelings). Play and music therapy are useful as are regular counseling and parenting techniques. A local bookstore has a book for kids emphasizing the circle of life and loss for children to understand (Εκδόσεις Παπαδόπουλος «Η Έλλη και ο Κύκλος της Ζωής» — Papadopoulos book publishers “Ellie and the Circle of Life”) but there are no books in Greek specific to dealing with traumatic events. A spiritual approach and books like Thomas Moore’s Dark Nights of the Soul help people who have experienced loss and difficult life ordeals. There are several theories about the stages of bereavement and people can feel denial that it happened (avoidance), anger, or try to accept it and move on. Particular emphasis on expressing sadness and anger is needed here.  It’s also not easy for servicemen (people) to endure everything from evacuating to picking up the corpses. There are many groups, therapists who use cognitive behavioral, meditation, and virtual reality techniques proven to be effective with these workers.

We are angry at the government and inefficiency. Mr. Tosca, the Ministry of Internal Affairs recently resigned, but nothing will change unless we re-evaluate and organize better — house in order, country in order, and see my past post on Kondo method. We can help Greece, a country in its worse crisis since WWII, by donating to worthwhile groups and initiatives like Act4Greece or The Hellenic Initiative, and Red Cross initiatives for those affected. In addition some self-care on a daily and weekly level like guided meditation helps. If we do this at least 3 times a week (much like exercise habits) and I particularly liked this one to bring more inner peace:

We cannot change that which we cannot control but YES we can learn to be more effective for the betterment of our communities.