Forest fires in Europe: A combustible mixture

Forest fires in Europe: A combustible mixture

30 August 2007

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Government incompetence and corruption encourage the arsonists

As recently as two years ago, a forest fire came close to burning down the home of Costas Karamanlis. His seaside villa outside Athens was spared, but the conflagration prompted the Greek prime minister to promise stricter measures to stop developers from building on land cleared by fires; satellite photos, for example, would be taken at regular intervals to help enforce Greece’s law banning construction in forest areas.

Mr Karamanlis failed to deliver. This week the emergency services struggled to contain the worst forest fires in Greece for more than a century, which have killed more than 60 people. Forestry officials say the firefighters’ work was hampered by the lack of satellite imagery.

Many perished trying to escape from Zacharo, a village in the Elis district in south-western Greece, as it was engulfed by flames. Homes in more than 100 villages were gutted. By some estimates, the fires have so far caused €5 billion ($6.8 billion) worth of damage.

The government, which called a snap election on September 16th, may yet face a backlash over its handling of the fires. It was quick to come up with money for the stricken—€13,000 (roughly $18,000) in cash, equivalent to more than a year’s income for many villagers. Few were grateful, though. Many who escaped said they felt let down by the authorities. Conspiracy theories abound. Some members of Mr Karamanlis’s New Democracy party claim their opponents started fires deliberately to discredit the government.

In truth, there are many causes. To begin with, Greece lacks a proper fire-prevention strategy. An exceptionally hot summer, following a winter drought, has made the resinous pine forests particularly flammable. Other countries, such as Italy, are having a bad year of forest fires.

But arsonists certainly have strong economic incentives. Rising incomes have fuelled a construction boom. In Greece, as in other Mediterranean countries, demand is particularly high for land near the sea to build second homes. Although Greek law states that builders cannot put up homes on former forested areas, developers are practised at getting around such regulations.

One reason is that Greece, unlike other European states, lacks a comprehensive register of forests and land ownership. A programme to put this right, paid for by the European Union, is moving slowly. It is easy to have burned forest land reclassified as former farmland, which can then be sold for development. Local officials are often open to bribery, while politicians are prone to declaring amnesties for illegal buildings ahead of an election.

Such problems plague other fire-prone parts of Europe. In Italy, where at least seven people died in fires this summer, an environmental group, Legambiente, estimates that 60% of fires are deliberately set. Some are the work of pyromaniacs. Others are started by farmers trying to clear land, or by part-time forestry workers creating employment for themselves.

There are also good reasons to suspect economic motives linked to Mafia-style organised crime. In 2000 the government passed a law banning construction for 15 years on property where there had been a blaze. However, such legislation has to be adopted at local level. In Sicily, not a single council has incorporated the law. In Campania, stronghold of the Camorra syndicate, a firefighting helicopter was shot at on August 6th.

In Spain, though, a recent study by Greenpeace, an environmental lobby group, suggested that deliberate arsonists were only a minority. Looking at thousands of fires whose causes fire were known (about half the blazes in the past decade), the study suggested that the worst culprits were farmers starting fires to burn stubble, clear land or removerubbish.

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