Deadly forest fires in Attica: a tragedy foretold

These are indeed tragic days in Greece. On Monday, 23 July, a wildfire rapidly swept through areas of eastern Attica. It roared through residential areas, causing a disaster without precedent: 81 dead at the time of writing, many missing, hundreds of houses burned to the ground and many people homeless.

This tragedy was the combination of many factors.

Mediterranean forests, especially pine forests, are extremely prone to wildfires. It is one of their main natural rejuvenating mechanisms. However, in Greece having a house inside a pine forest and by the sea seemed like the ideal vacation place. Consequently, a particular kind of endemic and anarchic real estate speculation regarding forest lands has been characteristic of modern Greek urban development. 

The result has been extensive areas that are full of houses, without planning, with inadequate streets and roads (and no room for emergency vehicles), without escape routes, with houses built under very inflammable pine trees: areas that could easily turn into death traps for their inhabitants.

At the same time, there is constant pressure by big business interests to declare areas not protected forest land so that they can be used for mining or big tourist projects. One of the demands of the “business community” in Greece has been to accelerate the process of “undeclaring” forest land. This gives a certain incentive to forest arson.

Climate change was also a contributing factor. Extreme weather conditions, and in particular a combination of extreme heat and local heavy winds, with gusts reaching 120 kilometres per hour, are becoming more common. These were exactly the local weather conditions in that particular area.

Austerity and the measures imposed by Greece’s creditors as part of the infamous “Memoranda of Understanding” have taken a heavy toll on civil protection in Greece. The water-carrying trucks of the fire service are more than 15 years old. Around 25 percent of all fire service vehicles are out of operation and in repair shops. There is a lack of tyres for these vehicles. Fire service personnel themselves buy parts of their equipment. There are many personnel shortages in the fire service.

Earlier decisions, such the 1998 decision to strip the forestry service of responsibility for forest fires, delegating it to the fire service, led to a situation in which suppressing fires was separated from the broader question of managing and protecting forests.

Lack of preparedness played an important role in the tragedy. Although the government has presented the situation as beyond any control, in fact there was an absence of civil protection plans.

Since the deadly fires of 2007 in Greece – and after the experiences of wildfires in other countries, most recently Portugal – we know that the greatest danger is a wildfire sweeping through a forest and residential area and catching people in their cars or as they are trying to escape. This requires detailed and tested plans for the evacuation of areas in danger and mechanisms of early warning. Although the general civil protection guidelines have stressed the necessity, no actual plans were made.

Many of these problems have been perennial. Earlier disasters such as the 2007 fires (when the fire even swept through parts of the ancient Olympia archaeological site) did not lead to drastic changes in policy and organisation. Land speculation of this particular kind has been around for a long time. Lack of planning is an old problem of local government.

However, there is tremendous responsibility on the part of governing party Syriza (Coalition of the Radical Left). The government led by Alexis Tsipras has been successful in passing austerity laws, but not in preparing for such disasters.

 It is a government that has many times “burned the midnight oil” trying to make extra cuts possible and thus achieving primary budget surpluses, but could not do the same to have effective evacuation plans or plans to contain this particular type of wildfire. It is a government that supervised cuts to civil protection, as it did with education and health.

In contrast to the lack of planning and coordination from both national and local government, firefighters, rescuers, doctors and nurses made a tremendous effort to deal with a very difficult situation, often going beyond their own limits.

Added to this we have seen a wave of solidarity without precedent. Huge waiting lines were formed in hospitals of people willing to donate blood. Huge amounts of aid were quickly gathered. Many people volunteered to help. This solidarity knew no borders. Egyptian fishermen saved people who had fallen into the sea to escape the fire. Kurd and Afghan refugees donated blood, and immigrants from Pakistan went as volunteers to help.

In such tragic days, marked by death and devastation but also by anger against the inability of the government to deal with the situation and the consequences of European Union-imposed austerity, such solidarity is the only source of hope.

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First published at https://lastingfuture.blogspot.com.