In a defiant general election campaign that ends on Saturday, Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras has robustly defended some divisive decisions taken over more than four years in power — from a treaty struck with North Macedonia to pension reforms agreed with the country’s bailout creditors.
But Mr Tsipras has been far less comfortable on one issue that is adding to public discontent and his likely crushing defeat on Sunday: his government’s response to a devastating inferno in July 2018 at Mati, a summer resort near Athens.
High winds drove a fire that caused 102 deaths, the worst recorded toll in a Greek wildfire. Two inquiries by Greek prosecutors and international disaster prevention experts pointed to a fatal lack of co-ordination between emergency services.
As the election campaign drew to a close this week Mr Tsipras —whose Syriza party is around 8 percentage points behind the opposition centre-right New Democracy in polls —was asked again about Mati in a television interview. He sparked a storm of tweets demanding he apologise publicly for the government’s chaotic reaction after he tried to fend off questions and said officials at first failed to inform him about casualty numbers.
“We lived with the risk of conflagration but when it came nobody was there to protect us,” Alexis Manuelides, who moved from Mati after the fire, told the Financial Times. “Syriza will pay for this at the ballot box.”
The official response at Mati — where many victims were trapped in their homes or their cars, while others were overtaken by the blaze as they ran towards the beach — was marked by muddle.
At one point police mistakenly diverted traffic in the direction of the fire because of a communications breakdown with firefighters. No evacuation plan was in place; even so, prosecutors concluded that many deaths could have been avoided “if civil protection measures had been activated to alert residents of the fire threat”.
The experts’ report highlighted a “complex and chaotic” landscape of 45 different services and 17 agencies spread among six government ministries, and a patchwork of incompatible IT systems, installed after a deadly wildfire fire in 2007, that have never been used.
Memories of the wildfire weigh heavily on those in similar communities around Athens, where weekend homes are built on pine forested hillsides above the sea.
“The fire and its consequences are constantly mentioned everywhere you go along this stretch of coast,” said Stella Rossi, a community leader in Mati. “It’s something we can’t avoid thinking about.”
Angelos Papazoglou, owner of a weekend home near the resort of Kinetta on the other side of Athens, where firefighters were battling another blaze on the same day as the Mati fire, said: “We were fortunate that we escaped the disaster that befell Mati. I often think it could have happened to our community.”
The Syriza government allocated €150m to clear debris from the Mati fire and rebuild 3,000 homes. Mr Tsipras called for legislation to overhaul the civil protection agency, taking into consideration recommendations from disaster prevention experts.
But the clean-up and rebuilding is months behind schedule, while the draft law still has to be approved by parliament.
Christos Spirtzis, deputy infrastructure minister, who is responsible for the Mati clean-up, said this week the government took “partial responsibility” but blamed the disaster on the financial “constraints imposed by Greece’s international bailout”.
Mr Spirtzis, a Syriza parliamentary candidate for east Attica, a constituency that includes Mati, said: “You cannot get everything sorted in just eight months.”
On the road into Mati, a sprawling mound of branches and sawn-off tree trunks collected from damaged properties looms as a new fire hazard. It will take at least another six months for a contract to be negotiated with a local company to remove the debris, say local residents.
“We’re extremely worried. This huge pile of burned branches is our main concern because of the threat it could ignite during the hot summer months,” said Emy Krokidi, who chairs a Mati residents’ association.
Several Greek and international companies have funded the rebuilding of a sports centre and three schools around Mati. But Ms Rossi expects it will take another three years to complete the rebuilding of homes funded by the government programme.
“Getting approvals of all the papers and permits required to begin construction is a time-consuming process,” she said. “We need a lot of patience.”