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Greece, burned

by talos Wed Sep 5th, 2007 at 04:47:31 AM EST

I've been away on holidays for a few weeks (working holidays up to a point) and usually with not enough time or opportunity to post. However despite the saying that there are no news in August, two major events happened in Greece while I was away:

1. One of the greatest peacetime disasters in modern Greek history, as fires razed (and are still razing) >2000 sq. km of forest and farmland and something like 120 villages in the Southern Peloponnese and the island of Evia, killing 65 firefighters and residents and destroying livelihoods, affecting as many as 16.000 people directly. Fires were occurring simultaneously in Attica (the prefecture that Athens is part of), for the fifth time or something this season, Western Greece, a few islands and pretty much all over. (more below)

From the diaries - with format edit ~ whataboutbob

2. The Conservative Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis announced early elections, 6 months ahead of schedule, as was widely predicted, for the 16th of September. This means that between the bare minimum duration of the pre-electoral debate / campaign, the fact that most of Greece was on vacation at the time that the elections were declared, and the week of public mourning and attention that the fires were receiving, the discussion is very thin, fast and revolving mainly around the responsibility (or not) of the government for the scale of the disaster. Although the following is by no means a detailed account of the events that transpired in the South of Greece, the week of 23-30 August, it is a brief summary of some of the main events:

The scale of the blazes was unprecedented. A month before the fires in the south of the Peloponnese (mainly the prefecture of Ilia, but also Messinia, Lakonia, and Arkadia), the northern part was burning in what was until then the largest fire of the most destructive forest-fire season ever. About those fires, that had occurred a month before, I had posted a comment here, in which I mentioned a few of the reasons behind this year's blazes, which apply to the great fires of Ilia, as well:

The root causes of all of this is a very hot summer, poor forest management and an attempt by the government to modify the constitutional definition of protected forest areas, a move that was obviously construed (and not irrationally) by some owners (real or alleged) of forested land as a sign that after a major fire their properties might be legally de-characterized as forest areas (with elections coming soon), meaning that they might be able to build stuff there - thus the ridiculously large percentage of arsons as a cause of this year's forest catastrophe. The whole protected area - forest area - public property encroachment - illegal conσtruction issue in Greece, is a very long story, but suffice it to say that it has resulted in the gradual minimization of forest areas around major cities and tourist areas over these past 40 years.

But what happened in the South made any previous forest-fire in Greece pale in comparison. The weather on the 23d smelled like fire: temperatures in excess of 40 Celsius, strong winds and dry air, after a very dry winter. First the blaze started on mount Taygetos in Lakonia. It is impossible to ponder the true extent of the ecological loss this signifies. The mountain burned nine years ago, to a lesser extent than this year - but this was a very quick repeat. Its dense forests are (were?) the home of over 160 species of endemic fauna, dozens of which are endangered. Six firefighters and a couple of visitors suffocated to death in the blaze. A fire then started near the agricultural village of Zaharo. Among its first victims was the beautiful Kaiafa lake and its forest. Then people started dying.

After that, as the reaction was slow and the fire ran around like a race car, the winds blew the fires everywhere. Almost the whole of Ilia, an agricultural prefecture, was burning. The fires killed an estimated 65 people, firefighters, volunteers and locals. At some point I stopped following the exact course of the fires, as I was freaking out hearing local residents calling TV stations and imploring that a water bomber plane or helicopter, a fire-engine something be sent to help them fight the fires - imploring the TV anchors, since all management of the crisis was at that point in tatters. Many locals stayed. Some of them managed to save their property and villages. Others didn't. The fire reached Ancient Olympia and for a while threatened the site and the Museum itself. Luckily, despite enormous damage to the physical surroundings and a few buildings in the town, both the stadium and the Museum escaped.

The whole chain of government was culpable: from the central government to the local municipalities, Civil Defense authorities, the firefighters' leadership. The badly payed firemen, both full-time and temporary, were the, unrecognized by many, heroes  of this tragedy.

The damages are enormous. Mainly in human lives but also in destroyed livelihoods. In Ilia alone 850 sq. km of forest were razed. 230 sq. km of farmland. 30.000 cattle, pigs and sheep. The damages are slightly smaller but still huge in most of the afflicted areas. A total of 1500 homes have been burned to the ground. The number of people afflicted having lost either home or some source of income is ~100.000. A total disaster.

Government aid, as the whole country was and still is in a state of shock and mourning, came quick. So quick that quite a few people that ought not have received any reparations, stood in line and took the 3000 Euros of emergency aid that the government offered. Private charities and events are gathering a substantial relief fund. Some estimates put the damages at ~2% of Greek GDP.

After all this, it is hard to head to an election. It seems blatantly evident, to me at least, that government inaction played a huge role in the loss of human life at least, and of farmland. It is also evident that a large part of the blame should be placed on successive Greek governments which didn't do much to improve the country's fire prevention and fire fighting ability, but indeed encouraged arson (which played a part in the fires near Attiki and it is suggested but not proven in Zaharo as well), by legitimizing successive squatters of public forest, allowed circumvention of existing forest protection laws and generally has made arson, a profitable enterprise.

As the IUCN notes:

...It has been known for some time that Greece, despite having the biggest fleet of water bombers in any southern European country, will continue to face these crises year after year until legal and institutional issues pertaining to land development, changes in rural demographics and the collapse of traditional farming practices are addressed...

Over the past 15 years, IUCN and many other organizations have been pointing out that natural patterns of forest fires in the Mediterranean have been changing dramatically. This has led to speculation that global warming is the primary reason why many of these forests are now burning more frequently and more intensely. This is not the case.

...Although some commentators assume a direct link between climate change and the increased occurrence of wildfires, there is very little scientific evidence to substantiate this. The basic facts remain the same; unwanted and uncontrolled fires are an indication of unsound and unsustainable land-use and fire management policies and practices....

The Greek election diary will follow soon... and will include a few words on the fallout of the fires on the political scene.

I took my 4thd trip to Peloponessus in July, and love it more each time I go...so this whole fire business has been very sad for us to hear. He hope that there is a speedy response to protect the scorched earth before the rains come. Here's to a speedy recover, Greece!  

(And thanks for this article, Talos!!)

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia

by whataboutbob on Wed Sep 5th, 2007 at 03:23:11 AM EST
Having now read your article again, I quote this:

After all this, it is hard to head to an election. It seems blatantly evident, to me at least, that government inaction played a huge role in the loss of human life at least, and of farmland.

Is this being recognized by the Greek nation? I look forward to reading your article on the upcoming election, and what the fallout of their incompetence).

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia

by whataboutbob on Wed Sep 5th, 2007 at 04:54:42 AM EST
I saw the pictures everywhere... all over Europe.. so it is nice to know that there is some level of euroean news...

I have been wonderign what are the effects of agricultural practices.... most of the fires originate from burning agricultural waste on the spot ... the fire is easily spread if it is not done proeprly.. in Spain is forbidden by law certian months but still done sometimes. what about Greece?

A pleasure

I therefore claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men's minds without their being aware of the fact. Levi-Strauss, Claude

by kcurie on Wed Sep 5th, 2007 at 05:54:41 AM EST
Agricultural practices certainly contribute, but weren't the main factors this year. Generally villagers know that it is stupid to burn waste or grass outdoors (especially with strong winds and a heat wave!) Yet of course it is common enough that there are public messages on TV warning about "burning dry leaves in the open". Some of the fires were started by shepherds trying to "clear" land for grazing.

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom - William Blake
by talos (mihalis at gmail dot com) on Wed Sep 5th, 2007 at 09:13:26 PM EST
[ Parent ]
thanks for the diary. there seems to be a europe wide issue about the designations of forest land and development which are just a great big invitation to the unscrupulous to start fires.

I bet these people will come out the biggest winners of this situation too.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Wed Sep 5th, 2007 at 08:08:19 AM EST
I'm being dense this morning...how does this work? "Oh look a fire came through, it's not a forest anymore, so give me a permit to build houses?"

you are the media you consume.

by MillMan (millguy at gmail) on Wed Sep 5th, 2007 at 02:12:28 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It's almost like that: Build a house illegally. Wait. Find (shady) ways to get electricity and water to your house. On a pre-election year some sort of amnesty will be given, the definition of what a forest is redefined for your area legally, local government will certify that your land had "prior farm use" and presto, you pay a fine and you are legal. Add to that the sorry state of land registration in Greece (there is no forest registry and no forest maps for the country) and the fact that the Conservative government tried to amend the constitution to narrow down the protection that the constitution grants to forests (which the European Parliament a couple of days ago called to be withdrawn) and the "uncertain" ownership status of large areas of forested land and you get some idea... I don't think there is anything quite like it elsewhere in the EU.

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom - William Blake
by talos (mihalis at gmail dot com) on Wed Sep 5th, 2007 at 09:29:23 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Note that the protected area of the Kaiafa lake and forest, was the target of several tourist "development" schemes (with golf courses and all), which thankfully local movements and the courts denied (especially the Higher Administrative Court has been steadfast in its defense of the environment whenever it has had a chance to decide such matters - that's one of the reasons that the government proposed a constitutional amendment to limit its jurisdiction this year). These plans and the proximity of Greece's planned Western Highway Axis to the first blazes in Ilia, cause not a few to believe that the initial fire was arson, pure and simple.

In the area around Athens, there is no question that the vast majority of the major fires these past 30 years have been arson attacks. All three mountains surrounding the Athens basin were severely burned this year. In almost all cases there is strong evidence suggesting that it was arson.

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom - William Blake

by talos (mihalis at gmail dot com) on Wed Sep 5th, 2007 at 09:39:06 PM EST
[ Parent ]
What a tragedy. I feel for the Greeks; it must be devastating to see one's universe burn to the ground.

To put these fires in perspective here is a satellite image analysis of fire recurrence in Europe. "Greece has experienced more wildfire activity this August than other European countries have over the last decade, according to data from ESA satellites."

One more image of the extent of the burnt area in Southern Greece

by Fete des fous on Wed Sep 5th, 2007 at 05:19:57 PM EST
What are the polls in Greece? I mean both about the culpability for the disaster, and parties for the election.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Mon Sep 10th, 2007 at 04:43:25 PM EST

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