Nine reasons behind a crime

Kathimerini looked at nine reasons behind the crime, the only word to describe the destruction of thousands of hectares of forest on the outskirts of a city vulnerable to high temperatures and air pollution. 1. How did the fire, which broke out at Dervenohoria, reach the peak of Parnitha? There is every indication that the decision to fight the Dervenohoria fire with land-based means so as to avert the possibility of electricity pylons being damaged by water dumped from the air was the reason the fire got out of control and rapidly reached the summit of Parnitha. Sources say that the pylons in question supply the prefecture of Attica, Evia and the entire Peloponnese. It is therefore likely, given the prospect of a total blackout in the capital and the ensuing political fallout, that the decision was made to use land-based forces. Who made the decision? Was it fire service chief Lieutenant-General Andreas Kois or was it a purely political decision? It is perhaps telling that Public Order Minister Vyron Polydoras, emerging from a meeting with the prime minister, said, «We had some reservations about dropping water in case it fell on electricity lines.» 2. Why did the firefighters not manage to stop the fire, even at the last minute? According to the firefighters themselves, the authorities had not taken the necessary measures to protect the area, even though it is the most important green space in Attica. Georgios Piliouras, president of the Panhellenic Federation of Firefighters’ Unions, explained to Kathimerini that no effort had been made to construct forest roads to give the fire service’s land forces access to the sources of the fire, and there were no firebreaks to slow the blaze. «Those who blame the firefighters for not stopping the fire by lining up along the road haven’t the faintest idea what a forest fire is. The heat and the speed at which it spreads are such that they cannot be checked by a road 5-10 meters wide.» 3. Is that the case? The truth has yet to emerge. The forestry service, however, spoke of the fire service not properly assessing the situation, of «underestimating» the fire. Yet the Parnitha forestry service is one of the best organized and equipped, as indicated by the fact that fire has never before reached the heart of the 3,800-hectare national park. Moreover, the forest service said that the forest road had recently been cleared and could have been used as a firebreak. 4. What does the burning of Parnitha mean for the inhabitants of Athens? Until the ecosystem of Parnitha is restored, Athens, and Attica in general, will lose a significant green expanse, and with it an opportunity of better living conditions in the city. The already disturbed climate of the city will worsen. Extremely high and low temperatures are likely to become more common. And there will probably be more floods, even in areas not accustomed to them. Worse still, the fire on Parnitha razed a large expanse of fir forest that will be difficult to regenerate. Experts say that the forest alone will take more than 100 years to recover, under the right circumstances. Otherwise black pines must be planted to protect the young firs from sun and aridity. In recent years, weather conditions have been drier, which does not bode well for the resurgence of the fir forest that grew on Parnitha for hundreds of years. 5. What impact did the retirement of many senior fire service officials in the last round of promotions have on the effectiveness of the fire service? In spring, while the state mechanism was already drawing up plans for the best possible protection against forest fires, 18 of the 28 most senior fire service officials were discharged before spending even one year in their new ranks. Sources familiar with the service’s workings told Kathimerini that certain officers who still had years of service ahead of them and in normal circumstances would have taken posts in the upper echelons of the service had been discharged. «They were promoted solely to be discharged,» commented experienced fire officers. The same source also commented, «In difficult situations like those on Parnitha, what matters most is the experience of the senior officers.» 6. Was the operational capacity of the fire service affected by vacant staff positions and the level of training and preparedness of existing employees? «Nowadays the fire service has the technology, 80 percent of its vehicles are modern, but it doesn’t have the people to operate them,» said one firefighter, commenting on the events of last week. For instance, some vehicles were not used for lack of drivers. More than 4,000 permanent positions in the fire brigade are vacant, representing 30 percent of the entire force. «As long as there is a staff shortage, forces are not allocated solely according to the risk in each area. Sometimes we have to put the entire force on alert, which is bad for officers’ morale and productivity,» a fire service official told Kathimerini. As for the 5,000 seasonal firefighters, their level of training is far below that of the permanent staff. And 550 new firefighters who have not yet been trained were recently appointed. 7. Why can’t the forestry service meet needs? In 1997 forestry services were placed under the jurisdiction of regional authorities, while the main forest areas remained the responsibility of the Agricultural Development and Food Ministry. In practice this means that there is no coordination between the services and of course no central planning. «Each regional authority sets its own priorities and does its own planning,» said a forestry official. And most employees have been moved to central services, leaving forestry authorities with few staff. There are particular shortages of forest guards and forest rangers, precisely the people who protect the forest. In 2003, for instance, 40 foresters were posted to forest services in the Peloponnese. Two years later all of them had been transferred to central services, while the Tripolis forestry service has just one forest ranger. 8. What does this mean for fire prevention? Funds for prevention are limited and badly managed. The Interior Ministry gives money to local government organizations to implement protection projects, but these organizations are not empowered to intervene in the case of forest fires. So they use the funds at their discretion. In 2006, the annual budget for the maintenance of Greece’s 102 forest services was a meager 3.7 million euros. 9. Why doesn’t the state protect the forests? We have been arguing for years about what a forest is and how to protect it. Everyone puts forward the compilation of forest maps as a solution. The forestry authority has pledged to update all existing maps within a year. But on May 10, 2007, the Land Registry company announced six studies for the demarcation of forests and woodlands throughout Greece. A new battle broke out among the services. Meanwhile, pressure for building plots is growing. That is why an amendment was submitted to Parliament three weeks ago which was intended to halt any action against illegally built houses until the forest map was completed. A vote on the amendment was avoided only at the last moment. The recent heat wave that tested systems and people to the limit showed that there is no more room for error. Protecting forests is a matter of survival, and perhaps the time has come to protect them whatever the cost.

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