Greek fires ‘a catastrophe waiting to happen’: experts

Greek fires ‘a catastrophe waiting to happen’: experts

31 August 2007

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Greece — A combination of dangerously dried-out forests and woefully under-equipped firefighters led to the lethal spread of fires which killed 63 people in Greece, experts and witnesses to the fires told AFP.

As Greek firefighters said on Friday they were finally winning their battle against the fires that have burned for eight days, thoughts turned to how the blazes had been able to lay waste to such huge swathes of the country.

“There is a lack of fire prevention, a lack of training for firefighters, a terrible lack of coordination and a shortage of funding and equipment,” Nikos Georgiadis, a forestry specialist at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), told AFP.

“A friend who is a firefighter told me that he and his colleagues were working without even having a map of the area that was burning. They were being sent off with little more than a bottle of water and an axe,” Georgiadis said. Dozens of witnesses to the fires gave similar accounts.

The crumbling of traditions dating back centuries also contributed to the catastrophe, he said.

In a country where forest covers about 45 percent of the land, it used to be customary for farmers and shepherds to clear the bushes and bush from between trees, removing what can act as kindling for bigger fires.

With rural populations ageing rapidly, that job is now carried out by the local authorities — or is supposed to be.

“The forestry services only got the funding for cleaning the forests in June or July this year. And in any case it wasn’t enough money.”

With a general election fast approaching on September 16, the conservative government of Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis was quick to blame arsonists for the fires, pointing to the fact that several appeared to break out almost simultaneously in more than one region.

Furthermore, in the two months before the fires broke out on August 24, Greece was roasted by three heatwaves that left pine and cypress trees and olive groves parched and susceptible to fire.

Costas Kolovas, a farmer from Chrissafa in the Peloponnese peninsula that suffered most destruction, said that while he too believed arsonists had been at work, the state had failed to perform its duties.

“As the flames swept in, there wasn’t a single fire engine in sight. We had to deal with the fires on our own,” he told an AFP reporter.

When flames tore through the western Peloponnese last weekend, the heat was so intense that car windscreens popped and melted. In the mountainous areas where they hit hardest, people desperately piled into vehicles in a bid to escape along the twisting roads. Dozens did not make it.

Luc Jorda, the fire chief in the Bouches-du-Rhone area of southern France where forest fires are a common occurrence, said warnings of the imminent inferno apparently came too late to allow the villagers to flee.

In a telephone interview from Marseille with AFP, he said the Greek authorities had to take a long, hard look at their emergency procedures in the wake of the disaster.

“France had a similar experience in 1979 when almost the whole of the south went up in flames. That led to sweeping measures being taken,” Jorda said.

“The Greek authorities are going to have to look at their system for evacuating and warning inhabitants as well as the organisation and deployment of firefighters.”

Sheer manpower was also an issue in the disaster. There are 30,000 firefighters in southern France, compared with just 17,500 — of which 5,500 are seasonal workers with little training — in the whole of Greece, according to official figures.

Jorda said he also questioned the Greeks’ reliance on tackling the fires from the air with water-bombing planes and helicopters in preference to using firefighters on the ground.

Such aircraft are often grounded as the fires take hold because thick smoke makes visibility difficult or strong winds make flying dangerous.

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