|TEST BY FIRE: GRADE IS “F”|
The devastating wildfires that burned in Attica, home region of the Greek capital, Athens, between August 21 and 24 have subsided – but the reasons that spawned this unprecedented disaster remain very much in play.
Fortunately, the fires did not cause human casualties this time around. Exactly two years ago, a similar conflagration in the southern Greek region of the Peloponnese killed 76 people, laid waste to hundreds of communities, and consumed an estimated 670,000 acres of forest, shrub, and farm land. In the two years between the two holocausts, however, little was done to help the areas affected and even less accomplished in terms of learning the lessons and trying to implement critical reforms.Tragically, the incalculable disaster that has struck only miles from downtown Athens, instead of jolting state and society to battle stations, has only triggered, yet again, the familiar, well-rehearsed reactions from government, political parties, and other “social partners,” all vociferously expressing their horror and heartbreak at the irreparable loss we have suffered but, not too deep down inside, wishing all the same for the speediest possible return to “normality.” This pathetic attitude becomes even more abhorrent when one contemplates the current Greek definition of this “normality”. In Greece,
1. “normality” is a condition where laws exist, but are rarely, if ever, implemented according to the requirements that gave rise to them in the first place;
With the onset of the emergency, it was obvious that the authorities were, yet again, caught unawares. Firefighters weren’t dispatched in force until the fires were blasting their way through the Marathon valley -- scene of another battle which the ancient Greeks, unlike their modern counterparts, fought with teeth-grinding, grim determination and decisively won.
As the blazes rapidly snaked their catastrophic path through greenery and inhabited locations, assisted by strong winds, chaos among those committed to battle the flames spiked proportionally. The details of this appalling story belong to a much lengthier exposition, but suffice it to say here that anyone who honestly believes disasters like the 2009 Attica wildfires can be tackled successfully in the manner displayed in the past 4-5 days is well on his way to a specialist’s couch. This conclusion applies most specifically to all those, in and out of government, who claim, publicly and unabashedly, that the “firefighting plan worked”.
One who is not privy to “normal” Greek conditions stands in awe before the images of the current disaster and the painful question of why the recent (and more distant) past seems to have taught nothing to those who are supposedly in charge of preparing the country against catastrophic emergencies like the one that has just befallen us. The following points, therefore, may be of some help in assisting those trying to understand what really brews in this country:
As a country with a permanent problem of forest fires, Greece has invested pitifully in building up capabilities, procuring equipment, and pursuing training doggedly: Some news reports, in the wake of the disaster, highlighted the irony of spending nearly €97 billion in arms over the last decade, when a mere €300 million would have been enough to (literally) arm Greece to the teeth against forest fires. In a similar vein, Greece went over €15 billion in the red to stage the 2004 Olympics, which left behind little concrete benefit other than a pile of super expensive, white elephant “Olympic structures,” when one twentieth of that amount would have been enough to make this country the absolute world champion in protecting its forests from the torch.
Intentionally and maliciously burning trees in Greece goes uninvestigated and unpunished: In over twenty years of suffering devastating forest fires, Greek authorities have singularly failed to make even one single serious case against forest arsonists and successfully prosecute them all the way behind bars.
Despite specific legal prohibitions of changing land uses of burned forests, no Greek government to date has implemented the law, pushed for reforestation, and cut the hands of land grabbers cold: Once a forest is burned, a forest is gone.
Without a land register clearly establishing public lands and forest boundaries, Greece is a paradise for trespassers, land grabbers, and outright land thieves: Eons of political corruption, especially prominent at the local government level; bribery; forgery of property titles; forest-killing laws ratified under pressure from political party clients; and the ubiquitous “community development associations,” i.e. private special interest groups claiming ownership of public lands to parcel out to their members compete to create Wild West situations and leave forests undefended.
Tolerating illegal construction, and allowing illegally built structures to connect to public utility networks in flagrant breach of the law, encourages invasion of forested areas and gives a free hand to criminals posing as “developers:” Now that many parts of Attica have been laid bare with a blow torch, a quick scan of the scorched earth visually reveals the true extend of illegal building, with hundreds upon hundreds of structures rising in all their glory amid the charred remains of the trees that up until yesterday provided them with ample camouflage.
Greece should be unique among its European peers in having assigned the city Fire Service to tackle forest fires: No serious planner today would even contemplate as a joke bringing city firefighters, and their street fire engines out into the mountains to battle “the rivers of fire” that call for specialized leathernecks, with their mission-specific vehicles and other equipment.
Greece should also be unique among most countries in cutting its Forest Service completely out of the forest firefighting op plan: While the Greek Forest Service has its detractors, it still remains the one agency with intimate knowledge of terrain and land specifics that are indispensable to any operational commander trying to coordinate firefighting efforts.
The Attica 2009 wildfires were most likely triggered by deliberate human action. The very first ignition occurred at night in the middle of inaccessible nowhere on Friday, August 21. Save an act of fire-breathing shamanism by local cavemen or the landing of an extraterrestrial space craft, this first ignition appears to be, almost certainly, the handiwork of arsonists. And the arsonists’ hand in this country is always the extension of deeply-rooted, powerful special interests aiming to land grab, “develop,” and make fortunes with total disregard for the long-term survival of a relatively unscathed environment which can continue to offer a safe place of habitation for all irrespective of social, economic, or other status.
In the end, Greek society needs to decide whether it wants a Greece turned into a desert or a Greece that maintains, protects, and enhances all the gifts of Nature that made this part of the world famous for its temperate climate and its beautiful seasons. We are, tragically, too far gone down the road of destruction of the environment to be able to reclaim climatic characteristics now long gone because of deliberate actions tolerated by the great majority of the people of this country. At least, we can try and save what little is left. But even this proposition appears of ill fate given the levels of corruption, the apathy of most toward the collective good, and the readiness of almost all to demand of others the civic consciousness they themselves so woefully are missing.