Forest blaze fuels arson suspicions

A fire that razed a large section of the Strofilia National Park, in western Achaia in the Peloponnese, on Saturday night, was the work of arsonists seeking to grab land in the protected area, regional conservation groups claimed yesterday. The blaze, which was extinguished early on Sunday afternoon after a long night of efforts by firefighters, ravaged some 10 hectares of forestland, about a quarter of the park’s expanse. Another 50 hectares of brush was also burned. Environmentalists yesterday expressed their outrage at the incident, noting that the forest had been declared a national park just 10 days ago. They believe that arsonists ignited the fire, planning to exploit the loopholes in legislation designed to protect the site, one of the largest pine forests in Greece and a unique ecosystem in the Mediterranean region. «For years now, we have been calling for a crackdown on land-grabbers in the region,» a Patras-based group of environmentalists said yesterday. Several smaller fires had broken out at the same site last month but the local fire brigade had managed to extinguish them before they could cause serious damage. They were not so lucky on Saturday night. Conservationists say the timing of the fire raises suspicions as it came so soon after the Environment and Public Works Ministry signed a decision to declare the area a national park. The decision, which needs to be rubber-stamped by another two ministries, foresees total protection for the nucleus of the forest. However, according to environmentalists, large chunks remain open to exploitation by potential land-grabbers.