Anger at Greek government’s wildfire response

Anger at Greek government’s wildfire response

28 August 2007

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Greece — The Greek president today declared the wildfires raging across the country a “national catastrophe” as the death toll reached 64.

The most devastating fires in Greece’s history have also led to bitter political attacks, with the socialist opposition accusing the government of being “totally incompetent” in its response.

However, in thinly-veiled criticism of the warring politicians, President Karolos Papoulias called on Greeks to show “maturity”.

Today the body of a shepherd, found near Zaharo in the western Peloponnese, became the latest victim of the fires, which the government has suggested have been the result of arson.

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“This government was proven to be totally incompetent, unable to handle the fire crisis, like all the other crises it encountered in its four-year administration,” socialist opposition leader Giorgios Papandreou said.

Protesters have marched through Athens chanting “down with the government” after the media showed householders trying to fight the flames with hoses and buckets, fuelling claims the response had been poorly coordinated.

New fires have continued to start quicker than firefighters could extinguish existing ones, leaving behind a blackened landscape of burnt forests, charred animal corpses and gutted buildings.

Yesterday, senior officials hinted they believed the fires were the work of forces trying to discredit the centre-right government ahead of early general elections on September 16.

Mr Papandreou denounced the claims as baseless conspiracy theories, although across the political spectrum there was agreement that arson may have been involved.

Greece, unlike its EU partners, lacks a land registry and proper forest maps, and this is often exploited by unscrupulous developers who build on land after it is illegally burned and cleared. The public order ministry announced yesterday that a public prosecutor would investigate whether arsonists could be prosecuted under Greece’s draconian anti-terrorism and organised crime laws.

Fire officials today counted 56 outbreaks since yesterday, with the most serious concentrated in the mountains of the Peloponnese in the south and on the island of Evia north of Athens.

Firefighters from 17 countries have been drafted in to help, with a group of 55 from Israel tackling one of the biggest fronts – in Krestena, near Ancient Olympia.

The daily paper Eleftherotypia led with the one-word headline “Incompetent” and accused the government of inventing an organised arson theory to cover its inability to deal with the crisis.

“The government invented the scenario of a ‘disproportionate threat’ to justify its incompetence, the dramatic lack of coordination and complete disorganisation of the state,” ran an editorial.

Nearly a third of a billion euros has been set aside for immediate relief, although the finance ministry said the final bill was expected to be much higher.

According to conservative estimates, 110 villages have been razed, 2.5m hectares (6.2m acres) of farmland consumed and vast tracts of pine forest and olive grove incinerated.

Much of Arcadia – a prime tourist attraction in the central Peloponnese – has been left a moonscape. Thousands of rural Greeks fear financial ruin.

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