Greek Forest Fires Recede as Government Count Cost

26 August 2009

published by Reuters

 By Maria Petrakis and Natalie Weeks

Aug. 25 (Bloomberg) — Greek firefighters watched for any rekindling of blazes that destroyed homes and forestland on the outskirts of Athens, Greece’s worst since 2007, as the government came under attack for its handling of the crisis.

Fire units remain in the eastern Attica area because there is a high danger that strong winds will reignite the flames, the fire department said today. Blazes on the island of Evia and near the western harbor of Porto Germeno are still not under control, a department spokesman said by phone. Ships are on standby there in case residents need to be evacuated, government spokesman Evangelos Antonaras said late yesterday.

No casualties were reported in the three-day Attica fire, which destroyed a wide swathe of forestland around the capital and forced the evacuation of homes and hospitals. About 150 homes were damaged, the Town Planning, Environment and Public Works Ministry said.

The government is being criticized for not doing more to prevent what the European Union called an “ecological disaster.” The Attica fire was the worst in Greece since 65 people were killed two years ago. Then, scorching temperatures and high winds caused more than 250 blazes, destroying 250,000 acres (101,170 hectares) of forest and farmland and leaving 2,500 people homeless.

The Communists, the third-biggest party in Parliament, have formally requested a special session for Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis to explain his government’s response.

Elections Possible

Karamanlis’s New Democracy party, which trails the opposition socialist Pasok in polls, has a one-seat majority in parliament and could face elections in March if Pasok leader George Papandreou carries out a threat to vote against a new mandate for President Karolos Papoulias.

Papandreou, who visited Attica on Aug. 22 to speak to firefighters and residents, will make speak on who is responsible for the country’s preparedness for the fires and “what must be done from now on,” Pasok spokesman George Papaconstantinou said yesterday.

Karamanlis will chair a meeting of his inner cabinet today to discuss the aftermath. With Greece under European Union supervision for running persistent budget shortfalls, Karamanlis has little room to be generous in compensation to those who lost homes or livelihoods.

Cabinet Changes, Elections

“Obviously this is not good news for the government,” Alastair Newton, senior political analyst at Nomura International Plc in London, said in an e-mail. Karamanlis has the option of changes to his cabinet or calling elections before March to show “his hand hasn’t been forced.”

The Interior Ministry denied a report that Interior Minister Prokopis Pavlopoulos had resigned over the fires. This was prompted by an item in a satirical show on Skai Radio, a ministry spokeswoman said. Skai is a news and current affairs station.

The 2007 fires and corruption scandals were cited as reasons for Karamanlis losing his comfortable majority in parliament in elections the following month, in September 2007. New Democracy won narrowly, taking 152 seats out of 300, compared with 165 in 2004.

Environment Minister George Souflias has pledged that forest land will be replanted with trees. Arsonists who burned forests to clear land for illegal building or grazing were blamed for many of the fires in 2007.

Summer Blazes

Greece suffers dozens of blazes each day in summer, with most brought under control within hours. This month’s Athens fires grew as swirling gusts reignited embers and sparked new outbreaks as soon as some were extinguished.

“Initial estimates show that close to 300,000 stremmata (74,131 acres) were burned” around the country, Dimitris Karavellas, the head of environmental group WWF Hellas, said in a phone interview. “Around 210,000 to 215,000 of those were in the Attica area.”

Arson is often cited as a cause. The Athens First Instance Court Prosecutor on Aug. 22 began a preliminary inquiry into the origins of the fires, the state-run Athens News Agency said, amid claims by Communist Party Secretary-General Aleka Papariga that the blazes were deliberately set by property developers.

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