Greece’s deadly fire: 'Blowtorch' no one could stop

ATHENS, July 25 (Reuters) - When the wind whipping wildfire through the pine forests around the Greek coastal village of Mati suddenly changed direction on Monday afternoon, it left residents with perhaps 20 minutes to save their lives. For the 81 or more who died, it was already too late.

"Not even 1,000 airplanes would have helped prevent this catastrophe," said Dimitris Stathopoulos, head of the union of fire brigade employees. "In that cursed hour, the fire became a blowtorch aimed at the settlement."

Fires are not uncommon in Greece's forests, which cover almost half its territory, and the Mount Penteli area has suffered regularly in the past decades.

But until Monday, the wind blew almost every fire inland towards the mountains, shielding Mati from all but minor damage.

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Greece's deadly forest fire
Firefighters, soldiers and local residents carry a hose as a wildfire burns in the town of Rafina, near Athens, Greece, July 23, 2018. REUTERS/Costas Baltas
Firefighters, soldiers and local residents carry a hose as a wildfire burns in the town of Rafina, near Athens, Greece, July 23, 2018. REUTERS/Costas Baltas
A firefighter holds a hose as a wildfire burns at the village of Mati, near Athens, Greece, July 23, 2018. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis
Locals try to extinguish a fire at a nearby house as a wildfire burns at the village of Mati, near Athens, Greece, July 23, 2018. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis
Firefighters are seen outside a house as a wildfire burns at the village of Mati, near Athens, Greece, July 23, 2018. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis
A wildfire rages in the town of Rafina, near Athens, Greece, July 23, 2018. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis
Rescuers and volunteers push an inflatable boat as locals are evacuated during a wildfire at the village of Mati, near Athens, Greece, July 23, 2018. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis
A house burns as a wildfire rages at the village of Mati, near Athens, Greece, July 23, 2018. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis
Police officers direct traffic as a wildfire burns in Kineta, near Athens, Greece, July 23, 2018. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis
Smoke blankets a highway as a wildfire burns in Kineta, near Athens, Greece, July 23, 2018. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis
ATHENS, GREECE - JULY 23: A firefighter tries to extinguish the fire that broke out in Rafina area, northeast of Athens in Greece on July 23, 2018. (Photo by Ayhan Mehmet/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
A house is threatened by a huge blaze during a wildfire in Kineta, near Athens, on July 23, 2018. - More than 300 firefighters, five aircraft and two helicopters have been mobilised to tackle the 'extremely difficult' situation due to strong gusts of wind, Athens fire chief Achille Tzouvaras said. (Photo by VALERIE GACHE / AFP) (Photo credit should read VALERIE GACHE/AFP/Getty Images)
Flames rise as a wildfire burns in the town of Rafina, near Athens, on July 23, 2018. (Photo by ANGELOS TZORTZINIS / AFP) (Photo credit should read ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP/Getty Images)
ATHENS, GREECE - 2018/07/23: Flames seen coming out of a building during a major fire. A major fire broke in the Penteli area northeast of Athens. Local authorities said they were evacuating childrens summer camps, while dozens of homes and cars were reportedly destroyed. At least three aircraft and a helicopter were battling the flames, along with at least 50 firefighters, the fire department said. (Photo by Giorgos Zachos/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
ATHENS, GREECE - 2018/07/23: A firefighter seen trying to put out the fire. A major fire broke in the Penteli area northeast of Athens. Local authorities said they were evacuating childrens summer camps, while dozens of homes and cars were reportedly destroyed. At least three aircraft and a helicopter were battling the flames, along with at least 50 firefighters, the fire department said. (Photo by Giorgos Zachos/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
ATHENS, GREECE - 2018/07/23: A firefighter seen trying to extinguish a fire coming from a building. A major fire broke in the Penteli area northeast of Athens. Local authorities said they were evacuating childrens summer camps, while dozens of homes and cars were reportedly destroyed. At least three aircraft and a helicopter were battling the flames, along with at least 50 firefighters, the fire department said. (Photo by Giorgos Zachos/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
A firefighter tries to extinguish hotspots during a wildfire in Kineta, near Athens, on July 23, 2018. - More than 300 firefighters, five aircraft and two helicopters have been mobilised to tackle the 'extremely difficult' situation due to strong gusts of wind, Athens fire chief Achille Tzouvaras said. (Photo by VALERIE GACHE / AFP) (Photo credit should read VALERIE GACHE/AFP/Getty Images)
ATHENS, GREECE - JULY 23: An inside view of a damaged house after a fire broke out in Rafina area, northeast of Athens in Greece on July 23, 2018. (Photo by Ayhan Mehmet/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
A firefighter reacts as a house burns during a wildfire in Kineta, near Athens, on July 23, 2018. - More than 300 firefighters, five aircraft and two helicopters have been mobilised to tackle the 'extremely difficult' situation due to strong gusts of wind, Athens fire chief Achille Tzouvaras said. (Photo by VALERIE GACHE / AFP) (Photo credit should read VALERIE GACHE/AFP/Getty Images)
Rescuers arrive at the area where bodies were found following a wildfire at the village of Mati, near Athens, Greece, July 24, 2018. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis
A woman reacts as she tries to find her dog, following a wildfire at the village of Mati, near Athens, Greece July 24, 2018. REUTERS/Costas Baltas
A woman reacts as she tries to find her dog, following a wildfire at the village of Mati, near Athens, Greece July 24, 2018. REUTERS/Costas Baltas
A house burns following a wildfire at Neos Voutzas, near Athens, Greece, July 24, 2018. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis
ATHENS, GREECE - 2018/07/23: A plane seen taking part in the firefighting mission. A major fire broke in the Penteli area northeast of Athens. Local authorities said they were evacuating childrens summer camps, while dozens of homes and cars were reportedly destroyed. At least three aircraft and a helicopter were battling the flames, along with at least 50 firefighters, the fire department said. (Photo by Giorgos Zachos/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / People watch a wildfire in the town of Rafina, near Athens, on July 23, 2018. - At least 20 people have died and more have been injured as wild fires tore through woodland and villages around Athens on Monday, while blazes caused widespread damage in Sweden and other northern European nations. More than 300 firefighters, five aircraft and two helicopters have been mobilised to tackle the 'extremely difficult' situation due to strong gusts of wind, Athens fire chief Achille Tzouvaras said. (Photo by ANGELOS TZORTZINIS / AFP) (Photo credit should read ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP/Getty Images)
ATHENS, GREECE - 2018/07/23: A helicopter seen taking part in the firefighting mission. A major fire broke in the Penteli area northeast of Athens. Local authorities said they were evacuating childrens summer camps, while dozens of homes and cars were reportedly destroyed. At least three aircraft and a helicopter were battling the flames, along with at least 50 firefighters, the fire department said. (Photo by Giorgos Zachos/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
A woman tries to find her papers inside her car following a wildfire at the village of Mati, near Athens, on July 24, 2018. - Fifty people have died and 170 have been injured in wildfires ravaging woodland and villages in the Athens region, as Greek authorities rush to evacuate residents and tourists stranded on beaches along the coast on July 24, 2018. The death toll soared with a Red Cross official reporting the discovery of 26 bodies in the courtyard of a villa at the seaside resort of Mati. (Photo by ANGELOS TZORTZINIS / AFP) (Photo credit should read ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP/Getty Images)
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On Monday it suddenly swung around to come from the southwest and picked up speed. Stathopoulos said the time window for any response was roughly 20 minutes.

The Mayor of Marathon, Elias Psinakis, who is responsible for Mati, said that was simply not enough.

"There is a civil protection plan, every municipality has one, but there is no time to do anything when the wind is so strong," he told Skai TV.

And that was when Mati's basic vulnerabilities were suddenly exposed.

"Unfortunately, this area is chaotically built ... people couldn't find a way out to save themselves," Stathopoulos said. "Most of the roads are dead ends ... and the rest are very narrow."

Many Greek villages develop in a haphazard way - houses are often built without planning permission, which is then obtained retrospectively, without full compliance. Homes are embedded among pine trees. Viable evacuation routes are not a priority.

A string of torched cars on a road leading to the beach provide a chilling tableau of the scramble to find an escape route. They only drove into traffic jams or thick, treacherous smoke.

Television footage showed that some cars had crashed in the race to leave, while some ended up nose-to-nose with other vehicles.

"It's tragic, it's really tragic. It looks like the area was hit by a rocket," said Leonidas Leonidou, head of a team of firefighters from Cyprus.

"The fire went so fast, I've never seen anything like it, and I've got 38 years' experience. It was like nature was conspiring."

Dozens of people are still missing, and rescue teams are still scouring the scorched land and the sea for survivors.

Stathopoulos complained that some fire hydrants had failed to function. But he added that this time, the consequences of a decade of national debt crisis that had forced spending cuts in the fire brigade were not the main reason for the catastrophe.

"I've often protested about shortages of funds or staff, about old equipment," he said. "But this time, none of that could have stopped it." (Reporting by Renee Maltezou; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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