Why Athens Burned—Again

27 August 2009

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 Despite progress, corruption and inefficiency still plague Greece.ATHENS—The catastrophic fires that raged in Greece for several days and threatened Athens have scorched several of the capital’s hillside suburbs. The images are remarkably similar to those of two years ago, almost to the date. Then, the fires threatened ancient Olympia and torched Mt. Parnes, a once picturesque national park where Athenians took refuge from the summer heat and enjoyed the winter snow. The current fires have burned hundreds of homes and the forested hills that used to filter Athen’s polluted air are no more. In total, 10 major fires have burned Athenian suburbs since 1981.

There are, however, stark differences from the 2007 fires. This time, Greece immediately mobilized the European Union’s Monitoring and Information Center and 10 fire-fighting aircraft from France, Italy, Spain, Cyprus and Turkey joined the battle as quickly as typically slow intra-European logistics allowed. Despite the complexity of the disaster—with heavy winds creating fire tornadoes and hilly terrain dotted with thousands of power lines and buildings—the fires were put out relatively quickly—but at a huge cost.

Compare this with the Italian response during the L’Aquilla earthquake last spring when dozens of people might had been saved if emergency crews from neighboring countries had been allowed to help. In 2007, over 50 people died in the Greek fires, whereas no lives have so far been lost this summer. Partly this is because officials have learned their lessons. The decision to evacuate threatened areas no longer rests with the central government in Athens. Instead, local mayors—who generally followed the advice of firefighters on the ground—have been given the authority to order these emergency measures, and they successfully directed thousands to flee and escape the fires. Patients from a children’s hospital in an at-risk area were transferred well ahead of the advancing flames. For once, disaster plans were implemented as drawn.

And yet there are also stark similarities to the incompetence and mismanagement on display two years ago. There were still few or no forest roads to allow rapid access to burning mountain tops, thus necessitating aerial water drops, which are less precise and more expensive. There are still few or no hydrants in urban forests (and no trained volunteers to use them) and virtually no constant-pressure reservoirs to store water for emergency use.

Dry brush and pine needles had not been cleaned in years, while undeveloped land next to luxury homes contained enough combustible material to power entire village power plants for days. Amateurs were everywhere trying to put out fires, succeeding only in spreading them. Houses now dot high-risk land that burned just a decade ago. Urban planning and zoning is nonexistent for most of the country. Fire crews and reporters alike had trouble locating on maps the obscure names of unincorporated areas developed without permits just a few kilometers from the Acropolis.

Even though Greece spends more per capita on defense than any other EU country, the military was again conspicuously absent in the early hours of the disaster, when firefighting on the ground is most effective. Using satellite tracking and/or radar-imaging of forest fires to continuously monitor ground conditions remains an exotic undertaking for technologically challenged bureaucrats, who still insist on paper submissions for routine tasks everywhere in government.

It is time for Greece to face up to the fact that firefighting efforts are no substitute for state-of-the-art disaster prevention and urban planning. Greece has made no progress in either in the past two years. The mayor of Marathon complained that he had been fined earlier this year by the Greek forest service for opening a fire road. A countrywide registry of forest land is still lacking, while a national land registry is over a decade in the making. Draconian regulations for land use to avoid fires are side-stepped with tiny bribes, and the euphemistically named Ministry of Land Use and the Environment is plagued with allegations of corruption that would embarrass Third World nations.

Fires are a fact of Mediterranean life, arson or not. As I argued on these pages two years ago, Greeks need to realize that the defense of their homeland also includes protecting every forest, river, lake, wetland and beach threatened by natural disasters. This requires ordinary people to take more personal responsibility for the environment. The country needs more professionally trained volunteer fire fighters, better environmental education, stricter enforcement of zoning and fire regulations and the reforestation with native, but more fire resistant, species. These measures would be a good start to avoid future tragedy.

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