Greece counts cost as victory near in wildfire battle – Summary

Greece counts cost as victory near in wildfire battle – Summary

29 August 2007

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Greece — Greek firefighters on Wednesday offered their first indications that the battle against wildfires that have engulfed much of the country since last week killing at least 64 people was finally being won. “At the moment no populated areas are under threat,” said fire service spokesman Nikos Diamantis, adding that while the fires had eased somewhat, it was still too early for the all-clear to be issued.

Fires were still burning in 29 regions on the Peloponnese peninsula and the island of Euboea, the fire service said, compared to 36 the previous day.

Opposition parties and environmental groups meanwhile on Wednesday called on citizens to take part in protest marches planned for the evening in Athens and in other Greek cities.

Earlier protests saw successive Greek governments blamed for the fires due to their policy of legalising housing on previously forested land, thereby encouraging criminal land speculators to set blazes.

Protestors were asked to don black clothing in honour of those who had lost their lives in the fires, which began on Friday.

On the Peloponnese, strong winds that had driven the spread of the flames and hampered firefighting efforts were reported to be dropping.

The present weather conditions were set to continue until at least Friday, meteorologists said.

The wildfires have caused an estimated 5 billion euros (6.8 billion dollars) worth of damage, Athens-based business publication Imerisia reported Wednesday, citing the Greek Finance Ministry.

“Experts at the ministry estimate the damage to be 3 billion to five billion euros,” the newspaper said.

Some 110 villages are estimated to have been wholly or partially burnt. The flames have also destroyed 4.5 million olive trees, and 60,000 sheep and goats have died.

Early estimates put the number of homeless at 3,000 in the western Peloponnese alone, but the government has not yet released any official figures. Most of those who lost their homes were believed to be sheltered by friends or relatives, with many emergency tents remaining empty.

With the worst of the crisis appearing to have passed, thoughts were turning to the reconstruction effort.

“Like the mythological bird of our forefathers, the phoenix, we must also rise from the ashes. We will succeed,” said a priest from Pyrgos in the western Peloponnese. Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis, who is facing into a general election amid accusations of government ineptitude, reiterated his call for solidarity.

The conservative government pledged that the rebuilding effort would begin in earnest following the September 16 polls, as did opposition leader Giorgos Papandreaou in the event of his being elected.

In the town of Zacharo on the western Peloponnese, one of the areas worst-hit by the inferno, hundreds of residents queued local banks to claim promised government aid of 3,000 euros for every homeless person.

“We have luck in the midst of tragedy,” remarked one woman from Zacharo. “Because of the election the politicians are giving everything that they can. Otherwise we would have had to wait months.”

Aid was also however forthcoming from other quarters.

Dairy producers’ unions in the northern provinces of Macedonia and Thrace pledged to sent sheep and goats to the south. Greek broadcasters meanwhile will stage a cross-channel fundraising telethon on Friday, while Greek shipbuilders and industrialists have already pledged millions for the disaster fund.

A wave of solidarity has also come from the Greek diaspora, who have called their embassies in Australia, Canada, Europe and the United States to ask how they can help: accounts have been set up worldwide to collect donations.

“What we need now is not alms, and not pity,” said a teacher from the village Artemida, which lost almost half of its inhabitants to the flames. “We want to stand on our own two feet and rebuild the paradise that is the Peloponnese.”

Meanwhile the European Union warned that fire-ravaged areas in Greece as well as in Italy, where wildfires have also been burning, could face further damage due to flooding.

“Following the wildfires the affected countries are threatened by a new catastrophe: Rainfall could lead to flooding because the burnt ground is so dry that it cannot absorb water,” EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas told German daily Die Welt.

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