A wake-up call for summer

Wildfires in Greece are set to get worse, experts are warning as we enter the official fire season for this year. Rising temperatures and increasingly dry land are creating the tinderbox conditions that turn sparks into forest fires, they say. The government insists that the firefighting service has been bolstered and is ready to tackle whatever this summer may bring. But doubts have been expressed by forestry and fire experts alike. Even President Karolos Papoulias, an ostensibly neutral political figure, gave security forces a good talking to, saying there is no room for error this year. Thinking back to the anxious days and sleepless nights of last summer – when catastrophic blazes ravaged huge swaths of land and claimed more than 80 lives – these concerns are more than justified. Large fires on the islands of Skopelos and Crete in March served as a wake-up call to many, not least to seasonal firefighters who had not expected to start their annual mission for another two months. The fires were attributed to the negligence of local residents. Blazes also broke out earlier this month at Attica’s sprawling Ano Liosia landfill and on a dump in Nemea, in the Peloponnese. They reminded us that the hundreds of landfills springing up across the countryside are not just pollution hotspots but ticking time bombs. It is unclear what caused these fires; they may have been set on purpose to destroy trash or by arsonists for fun. The Nemea blaze, which broke out on a hot day, may have been ignited by a methane explosion – a common occurrence at landfills. Interior Minister Prokopis Pavlopoulos said efforts to shut down illegal dumps, in accordance with European Union directives, are moving forward. But the country’s landfills are a symptom of a broader problem that fueled many of last summer’s fires: the irresponsible attitude of many Greeks toward their environment and their fellow citizens. It was this mindless indifference that led two Cretans to burn a pile of branches and dry grass on the island amid high winds in March. The blaze that broke out a few weeks later on Skopelos was so large it prompted local authorities to declare a state of emergency. Mercifully a rainy spell followed, dousing the dry land along with our fears of another inferno. But the specter of last year’s disaster has not disappeared. The sight of orange flames licking at the peaks of the Ano Liosia landfill one recent Sunday night and of blackened trees on Skopelos and Crete sent shivers down many spines. The government – re-elected just a month after the August fires – knows it cannot allow such a terrible disaster to happen again. It has boosted firefighting personnel. But specialist staff and equipment are still inadequate, experts warn. There are also fears that the lack of planning and coordination between various state bodies that fueled last year’s fires still pose a real risk. Meanwhile little or no efforts are being made to counter widespread problems with water supply, acute in areas such as Crete. The large Aegean island, one of Greece’s most popular tourist destinations, is one of the country’s driest spots. And rather than supporting it, recent initiatives may rob it of dwindling natural resources, making it more vulnerable to fires which thrive in dry conditions. A government-backed plan for a billion-euro tourism development on the island has been roundly rebuffed by conservationists as a huge drain on resources. Ecologists claim that the Cavo Sidero project will guzzle water resources at a time when scientists are warning of impending drought on the island – fertile ground for wildfires. The Minoan Group, which is behind the Cavo Sidero project, counters that it has done a full environmental study and that water resources will not be affected. Meanwhile Greek authorities have refrained from criticizing the initiative which will secure millions of euros during a trying time for international tourism. Similar initiatives – although not quite as colossal in scale – have been slated for the Peloponnese and Evia, much of which were ravaged in last year’s forest fires. The mayor of Zacharo, the Peloponnesian village hardest hit by last August’s blazes, has spearheaded an initiative to develop the area’s pristine coastland and build summer homes for wealthy foreigners. Local business groups have scrambled to forge deals with foreign developers attracted by the area’s natural beauty, and its proximity to popular tourist attractions such as Ancient Olympia, which was also singed by the fires. Authorities insist that these initiatives will be carried out «with the utmost respect for environmental protection.» But some of the more ambitious projects – such as the construction of a Peloponnesian highway cutting through forestland – have fueled concerns. Meanwhile the forgotten villagers of the Peloponnese and Evia, who experienced last year’s nightmare first-hand, are still picking up the pieces. The television cameras may have packed up and left, looking for fresher stories, but life goes on for hundreds of people who lost their relatives, homes and livelihoods in the furious August flames. After months of complaints by local authorities, charging residents had received only a fraction of funding promised by the state for the reconstruction of burnt homes and farms, the government recently handed out some compensation. Still villagers feel abandoned. A 10,000-euro check will not rebuild a razed home or rejuvenate a scorched orchard. But, what is worse, they fear that the same nightmare could recur, perhaps not for them but for friends or relatives whose villages were lucky enough not to lie in the path of last year’s fires. Let us hope that authorities have learnt from last year’s bitter experience and will prove these fears to be unfounded.