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Fleeing from raging Athens fires

By Malcolm Brabant
BBC News, Athens

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The BBC's Malcolm Brabant flees the fires

I always felt a little guilty about living in Drafi.

Like all the other homes dotted around the crags and wooded slopes, the construction of our small rented house was only made possible because of a terrible fire 10 years ago which wiped out a virgin forest.

Our delight in Drafi's dramatic mountain scenery, the cleanest air in smoggy concrete Athens and cool invigorating breezes was always tempered by pangs that we were possibly benefiting from an act of arson that enabled unscrupulous property developers to prosper a decade ago.

And this weekend, it seemed as though nature took its revenge.

We got out with maybe five minutes to spare.

It was an orderly retreat. My wife distilled our possessions down to the most priceless items that define a family - the photographs, the videos, our son's baby teeth, the tools of our trade, laptops, cameras, Dash the Labrador, his water bowl - and packed them in the car.

The rest could burn if necessary. It was only stuff. And stuff can be replaced.

Purged by the flames

As the pulsating wall of flame rose up from the valley, where the stout wall of an 11th Century nunnery has survived earthquakes, pestilence and Ottoman and Nazi invasions, we hosed the last of the well water on to the garden and bade our home farewell.

Water bomber drops its load north of Athens - 21 August 2009

Anxious to avoid the car crashes that roasted some of the victims of Greece's terrible summer two years ago, we drove slowly down the road.

We were aghast at the conflagration racing up the hill, eating the trees and spitting out the branches, as part of an all-you-can-eat meze before, we assumed, it would consume our home.

In Pallini, the nearest suburb, we discovered a teacher from our son's school, who lived in a house just up the hill.

She and her family had taken flight an hour earlier.

She talked passionately about how Drafi had been like a lung for Athens, providing oxygen and acting like an air conditioning unit for the city, with the trees cooling the northern winds on the way to the concrete sprawl.

It would never be the same again.

She was right. When we eventually braved the smoke and climbed back up the hill, bracing ourselves for the worst, we saw that almost all the houses had survived, but the trees had not.

This most verdant of suburbs was now the colour of moon dust. The plane trees and pines were charred skeletons.

The fire stopped at our back garden wall. The trees in our garden were singed but salvable. I no longer feel guilty about our house in Drafi.

The pangs have been purged by the flames.

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