inherit a forest
and bequeath a tree.”
Kostas Vasileiou, 2004
The news that came to the Ministry of Finance was dire. Meletaki, a dense pine forest that extended from Mandra to Mount Cithaeron, was engulfed in flames. Strong northern winds fanned the blaze and made it harder to extinguish the fire, which seemed to be completely out of control. The mayor of Eleusis and the head of the gendarmerie sent desperate telegrams to Athens to request the dispatch of soldiers to assist in the firefighting efforts since local forces were not enough.
Reaction in slow motion
The fire broke out on 1 August 1903 between the present-day communities of Palaeochori and Agios Sotiras (a region known as Paleokountoura). It was a difficult Saturday for western Attica, as fire also broke out at Kandili, a rocky narrow gorge between two pine-clad mountain peaks of Mount Pateras in Megara. The first smoke was detected around seven in the morning, but the telegram that reported the start of the fire only reached Athens in the afternoon. Prime Minister Dimitrios Rallis (who also served as Minister of Finance) immediately ordered a detachment of forty sappers from the Athens Garrison Headquarters to proceed to Eleusis.
Of course, the rudimentary means of transportation available at the time did not facilitate the rapid deployment of the firefighting forces: Second lieutenant Papadopoulos departed on horseback early in the evening, while the soldiers started for Eleusis a short time later on horse-drawn carts that also carried the necessary tools (four axes and four shovels, a ridiculous underestimation of the situation).
The absence of waterbombers
While the Athenian soldiers took their sweet time with the carts, the Eleusinians tried to deal with the calamity with whatever means they had at their disposal. Pine cones from the burning trees started new fires at great distances, while the ferocious wind made everything more difficult. Forest rangers, residents of Eleusis, villagers, gendarmes, and sixty soldiers from the Corps of Engineers could do little to combat the conflagration. The flames rose skywards and were clearly visible from Eleusis and Megara; even the bathers at Palaio Faliro could see the dense smoke rising on the horizon. Soon the fire was threatening the community of Vilia.
The chief forest ranger of Eleusis informed his superiors that the fire originally moved towards the south, but soon the winds pushed the flames in all directions. The United States may have had planes and airports since 1775, but the Eleusinians could only rely on ground forces (about 250 men, of whom 150 were villagers and the rest soldiers and gendarmes) and the axes they used to build a firewall. As the situation threatened to get completely out of control, they decided to create a control line by backfiring. The soldiers and the peasants took advantage of a pre-existing path that separated most of the forest from the part that was on fire and started a small fire in order to limit the spread of the larger inferno by removing its fuel.
An evil wind blows
Eventually, the wind itself offered the solution; it stopped blowing from the northwest and turned to the south. The flames headed back to the area they had consumed earlier and went out for lack of fuel. The exhausted soldiers and villagers, grateful for the end of this nightmare after three and a half days, put out the remaining embers and breathed a sigh of relief.
Initially, there were suggestions of arson and the authorities arrested some shepherds deemed suspicious. Eventually, however, they released them because no evidence was found against them; the fire was attributed to negligence.
How many trees in a forest?
The disaster was huge and multifaceted. The forest was among the most beautiful in Attica, a vast area of pine trees that started exactly at the end of the Eleusis olive grove and covered the whole mountain. A third of that area was lost to the flames (more than 8600 acres), and since each acre had about 1600 large pines, the damage to the ecosystem was terrifying. Many wild boars and wolves were also victims of the fire.
But the loss of all these millions of pines had financial consequences as well. Many residents of Mandra and Eleusis earned their livelihoods as resin harvesters. The forest where the fire occurred was privately owned by an individual who exploited the pine trees for the production of resin. In a matter of days, the basic source of income of countless families turned into ashes.
The royal princess
The ecological disaster in Eleusis deeply affected Princess Sophia, who asked the authorities to ensure that trees would be planted sparsely during the reforestation process and that forests would be cleaned systematically to remove flammable material and prevent the easy transmission of flames from tree to tree in the future. The Philodassiki Society also supported the Eleusinians and undertook to supply the peasants with seeds of acacia on the assumption that this tree does not burn as readily as pines. The economic significance of the pine forest made its restoration inevitable, but the Society hoped to establish fire zones of acacias among the pines to protect the forest and the livelihoods of the Eleusianians.