A Greek tragedy of enormous proportions continues to unfold before our eyes. If there was any doubt about the magnitude of the inferno, one look at the satellite photo of the southern part of the Greek peninsula known as the Peloponessus, will make you a believer. Entire isolated mountain villages have been surrounded and engulfed. Many of the inhabitants have escaped or been rescued in the conflagration while others have been killed in the fast moving forest fires. A relatively dry winter followed by a very hot, dry summer have created a tinderbox. Once the fires started they were fanned by the strong winds common during the month of August.
The fires are still burning and already the fingerpointing and recriminations have started before the dead have been buried. Some look for scapegoats, others talk about dark conspiracies. The government including Prime Minister Karamanlis has hinted at the possibility of terrorism. As usual no attempt to come together in the face of adversity and devise lasting solutions. Lost in all of this is the many personal tragedies engendered by the fires.
The usual governmental promises of reforestation and partisan bickering over blame followed the catastrophic fires in the Parnitha National Park, the last green haven for Attica's 5 million citizens, and in Pelion, where about half of the forest burned down. President Karolos Papoulias tried to set the tone for the response to the ecological disaster, calling for the environment to become a top national priority, and for a cross-party initiative to protect the forests. That effort quickly degenerated into a blame game in parliament, when a debate on the family economy called by PASOK (Greek Socialist Party) leader George Papandreou turned into a war, with all party leaders pointing the finger over the destruction of Greece's forests.
The dispute hardly came as a surprise, as the government's proposal to revise article 24 of the constitution to allow the development of tracts designated as forests before 1975 was roundly condemned by opposition parties. Indeed, the affirmative vote of ruling-party New Democracy parliamentary representative Apostolos Stavrou in a committee, of which he was not a member, led PASOK to charge fraud and walk out on the entire constitutional amendment process.
"What was forest will again be forest," Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis declared in the July 2 parliament debate. "There are no votes to be gained from natural disasters and human suffering. Those who seek votes there only expose themselves," he said, alluding to PASOK.
Let's look at some facts (more background info here).
Greece has one of the largest fire-fighting aircraft fleets in the world, given the size of the country. The Canadairs form the backbone of this fleet. Greece owns 13 of the discontinued CL-215 aircraft and eight of the improved CL-415 water scooping aircraft. Greece is planning to buy more aircraft. The two major contenders are the Russian Beriev B-200 amphibious aircraft and the Canadair 415. The former made it's first appearance this summer after an official request to Russian President Putin by Karamanlis. The aircraftt came with a hefty rental price in the tens of millions of Euros. Reportedly, Greece is planning to buy up to 12 of these aircraft. Each aircratft has its advantages and disadvantages.
The Beriev carries twice the payload (12 tons) and can execute more drops in the same amount of time. It has a longer range and can fly longer between refuleling. It has a quicker turnaround time between operations and doesn't break down as often. The Canadair is much more manuverable. This is particularly important given the mountainous Greek terrain. The Beriev is less fuel efficient, and its maintenance and parts are costlier. The support infrastructure for the Canadair is well established in the Hellenic Air Force which has done a superb job of maintaining the aircraft under very trying circumstances.
Over the years, Greece has increased funds for fire prevention allocated to local authorities. It has also made substantial investments in the Fire Service. The Fire Service has come under a good bit of scrutiny lately. Although it is the wrong organization to deal with forest fires it has done surprisingly well in the face of the tremendous increase in fires breaking out in different places simultaneously.
The Greek government has thrown a lot of money at the problem, yet the number of fires and the resources needed to control them are growing exponentially. By way of comparison the number of hectares burned in 2000, a very active year was approximately 150,000. This year according to European Commission European Forest Fire Information System, approximately 268,000 hectares have been burned and the season is far from over. A large part of this increase is due to increased activity of people in or near the forests and forested lands. New roads and an ever-increasing number of private cars offered easier access to forests. The number of people leaving the cities in the summer, seeking cooler places along the coastline and in the mountain villages for their vacation, has gradually increased, increasing the probability of accidental fires. The same is true for international tourists who visit Greece every summer at the peak of the fire season. Most importantly, a trend that started in the late 1970s of building secondary summer housing along the coasts, accelerated in the 1980s. These housing areas were poorly planned, creating a troublesome urban/wildland interface and increasing the risk of wildfires. The activities of these people, starting with construction and continuing with their everyday activities (barbecues, burning debris, parking cars on cured grass, etc.) have very frequently resulted in accidental wildfires.
Another factor that led to increased forest arson in the 1980s and 1990s is a spin-off of the demand for land to build secondary summer housing and to develop tourist accommodations. This demand far exceeded supply, as most forests in Greece are public and protection laws make change –of use very difficult. Furthermore, an exact and complete land register has only recently started to be developed. The lack of land for development drove prices extremely high, and the lack of a land register and poor law enforcement allowed those burning forested lands to illegally occupy them. On more than one occasion, many years later, when the number of people in this category became too many and it was evident that it would be practically impossible to evict them from the areas they had occupied, the Greek government legalized these occupied lands. In this way, a motive for arson was created.
The forests have became denser and dead, downed woody material increased as a result of the abandonment of villages, especially in mountainous areas, in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, as people immigrated abroad or moved to the big cities, mainly Athens. As dead forest biomass, especially around villages, stopped being used for cooking and heating as in the past, either due to decreasing population or due to replacement by oil, electricity and propane gas, it started building-up, making forests flammable right to the first houses of each village. Fires reaching there, rather than slowing down, now often burn homes and occasionally kill people.
In the past, resin collectors contributed to safer forest by maintaining forest trails for their need to move from tree to tree and by managing the forest, selectively removing older trees that were useless to them in order to favor regeneration. Furthermore, since the forests were their field of production and the storage area of their product, they exercised maximum fire prevention care and immediately suppressed any fire. Unfortunately, by the end of the 1970s this profession started to slowly die out as the demand for resin decreased, income dropped, and no subsidies were provided by Greek or European Union policies.
There will be time to ponder what can be done to solve the fire problem once the rains come. The rains however, will bring the inevitable flooding, a consequence of the lack of vegetation to hold the water in the ground. The impact of this environmental catastrophe will be huge. Every Greek will be affected. Especially those who have lost businesses, olive groves, vineyards, homes, entire communities, not to mention, loved ones . The overall Greek economy and tourism will also take substantial hits. More importantly, this issue is a seminal one for Greek society. If Greeks cannot fix this problem, then chances are that the other major issues facing Greece will be dealt in similar fashion or not at all. Right now the emphasis has to be on helping the victims. Help is pouring in from surrounding countries. Nevertheless its up to the rest of us to help financially. Greek Americans are now being mobilized by our religious and community leaders to respond to the urgent need of the Patrida (Hat tip, GeorgeS). I urge readers to send a generous donation to:
Greek Orthodox Relief Fund For Greek Fires
8 E. 79th Street
New York, N.Y. 10021
Fellow blogger and PhilHellene, California Kat, over at the American in Athens blog has more on the subject.
Pray for our brothers and sisters in Greece. Let us hope that the deaths of so many will not be in vain.