Gov’t on defensive as fire damage assessed

Gov’t on defensive as fire damage assessed

Firefighters remained on standby Wednesday after managing to douse most of the dozens of blazes that had burned swaths of forestland on the outskirts of Attica, in the Peloponnese and on Ionian islands over the long weekend.

Strong winds and tinder-dry conditions had kept firefighters working around the clock since Saturday when the largest of the blazes broke out in eastern Attica and on Zakynthos.

The extent of the damage to forest- and farmland was around 1,500 hectares, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said in televised comments in the presence of Fire Service officials. However, other estimates put the damage closer to 1,800 hectares in eastern Attica alone, with another 2,300 hectares on the island of Kythira and thousands more hectares across the Peloponnese reduced to ashes in fires earlier this month.
Dozens of homes have been destroyed though there were no injuries reported.

After several days of angry exchanges between the government and the opposition regarding the efficiency of the response to the fires, the prime minister Wednesday chaired a mini cabinet meeting to discuss the situation.

Ahead of talks at the Maximos Mansion, Tsipras surveyed the damage to land in eastern Attica during a helicopter ride with Interior Minister Panos Skourletis and fire department chief Vassilis Kapelios.

In a visit to Aghia Kyriaki, a village in eastern Attica, Tsipras declared that Greece had “avoided the worst” but that “we have to be alert.” He also noted that the damage to forestland was significantly less than that wreaked by the devastating blazes of 2007 when a conservative administration was in power, a comment that prompted much criticism from the political opposition and on social media.

In comments to Real FM Wednesday, government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos rebuffed criticism of the premier, who only visited the scene of the fires after they had been doused. Tsipras had been in constant contact with Citizens’ Protection Minister Nikos Toskas for updates on the situation with the fires, Tzanakopoulos said.

The slow response to the challenge posed by the forest fires renewed debate about Greece’s inadequate and aging fire service vehicles and equipment.

Another problem was that the European Union’s Civil Protection Mechanism was not able to assist in the way it has done in recent years, chiefly because many other countries in the region were also struggling with similar problems. In recent weeks, the EU’s mechanism received eight requests for assistance in the form of water-dropping aircraft – two from Portugal, two from Italy, and one each from France, Montenegro, Albania and Greece. Greece’s request came as Portugal lodged its second appeal, its own aircraft struggling to put out 176 forest fires.

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