Firefighters are battling two large fires in Greece. One has burned near the suburbs of the capital city of Athens where it has moved into a residential area.
A second fire at the southern tip of the Peloponnese in the Laconia area is being pushed by strong winds. Three villages were evacuated and scores of people fled to the beach where the Coast Guard and other vessels were attempting to evacuate them, but those rescue efforts were being hampered by rough seas.
One of seven air tankers working on the Lakonia fire had to make an emergency landing but the two pilots were not hurt, fire officials said.
Hundreds of Greeks staged a silent protest in Athens on Friday to condemn the failure of the government to stop the devastating fires that burned into the suburbs of Athens recently. About a thousand protesters assembled in front of the Greek parliament to express their outrage to the scandal-plagued administration that “allowed” a similar fire storm in 2007.
Approximately 65 homes were destroyed and 143 others were damaged in the fires that burned near Athens between Friday and Tuesday of last week.
The two main political parties are about evenly matched in Greece. If the dissatisfaction with the administration caused by the wildfires gains momentum, it could result in many of the current office-holders being replaced by candidates from the opposing party during the next election.
The Wall Street Journal has an editorial about the recent fires near Athens, Greece, written by Costas Synolakis. Here is an excerpt.
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.
Mr. Synolakis is a professor of natural hazards at the Technical University of Crete and director of the Tsunami Research Center at the University of Southern California.
The fires that have burned into the suburbs of Athens are contained, according to the Environment News Service. Pushed by very strong winds, the fires burned thousands of hectares and destroyed about 150 homes. No deaths have been reported.
Some of the citizens have criticized the government for a slow response to the fires. A few photos and videos show residents fighting fire in their neighborhoods with buckets of water and tree branches, saying they had not seen a fire truck and they were on their own. Newspaper editorials and mayors of villages have complained about the way the fires were fought.
These were the worst fires since 2007 when 76 people were killed by fires in Greece, many of which were set by arsonists.