Monday, 24 August 2009

Why did the fire get out of control?

A major difference between the fire that burned a large portion of Attica over the August 22-23 weekend and the devastating fires of 2007 is that no-one is blaming arsonists or claiming a conspiracy against the nation. That was Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis' position on August 25, 2007. This year, the government is simply blaming the elements.

It is less sexy, but closer to the truth. On Saturday the fire service spokesman referred to the fire as a “natural disaster”. That same afternoon Karamanlis visited the fire service's operations centre and simply emphasised the self-sacrifice of the men and women in uniform. Later that day he called for calm. On Sunday, visibly weary, he simply said that “the situation continues to be difficult.” No blame was apportioned, no witch-hunt for a conspiracy of arsonists begun.

No one seems to want to comment on who, or what, started the fire. Instead, mayors and community leaders in the stricken areas are raking the government and fire service over hot coals (no pun intended) for what they see as tardiness and sloppiness.

The leader of Grammatiko, Nikos Koukis, where the fire started on Friday night, says the battle could have been won if air drops of water had taken place early on Saturday morning: “The fire… could have been contained if air drops had happened by 6:30, 7:00 or even 7:30 on Saturday morning,” he told The New Athenian. “These drops did not happen, the fire spread into a thickly wooded ravine and spread in an hour to Varnavas and in about two hours to Marathon.” Other locals gave similar descriptions of the fire service losing the battle in the small hours of Saturday. The moment is critical. It was the last chance to contain a conflagration.

The people of Grammatiko have also drawn a connection between the fire and a landfill being constructed near their town. Police have had to be stationed on the road to Mavro Vouno, where the landfill is being prepared, since July 6. Their role is to stop vandalism or burning of the excavators and bulldozers working at the site, after numerous threats.

The only real connection between the landfill and the fire seems to be that the fire began at a point called Pyrgathi, about 300 metres from Mavro Vouno, where the landfill is being built. Koukis thinks the police, who would have been among the first to spot it, could have done something to stop the fire, or at least alert him. (In the event, he was informed by the community leader of neighbouring Varnavas about half an hour after the fire service was informed).

Koukis goes far enough to voice a conspiracy theory: “There are rumours that this was not accidental but an attempt to overcome the reactions of locals [to the landfill], who say 'this is a paradise and why do you want to bring us the landfill here?'” The theory is a little far-fetched, perhaps, but it is a response to those who accuse of local activists of realising a threat to burn out the excavators.

The tit-for-tat accusations over the landfill are a measure of the passions for and against the landfill that has been imposed by court order on this idyllic community. The enmity between police and the local community even after the fire is an example of a heinous lack of coordination between authorities even to avert disaster. How can we protect a natural heritage no-one owns if we are willing to cut off our noses to spite our faces?


  1. Here in Canada people look at me with surprise when I tell them that it's the Greeks that burn their own land... And this level of goverment conspiracy is something they simply can not comprehend... me included.
    And I believe that is the only country in the Western World that something like that would happen and the goverment would still be standing. Let us not mention what happen two years ago... Any lessons learned ?

    All land in Greece should be privatized and building should be permited regardless of land use, and under stict and realistic regulations. It's the one and only way.

    A. Balanos
    Montreal, Canada


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