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.