For weeks, much of Greece has burned. The raging wildfires have even scorched the "lungs" of Athens, the great fir-and-pine-carpeted parapet of Mount Parnitha. A national park and a European Union-protected wildlife reserve, Parnitha was the last swathe of substantial greenery accessible to the capital's 5 million residents, teeming with deer, squirrels and wild rabbits, and acting as a natural air conditioner to offset the heat and pollution emitted by the capital's 2.5 million cars. July has left the capital choking, as hundreds of firefighters and conscript soldiers battled to stop Parnitha's inferno from sweeping down the mountain's southern slopes and attacking the capital's suburbs. The government declared a tentative victory, but a brown cloud cloaked the city and filled it with a stench of smoke, while chalky gray ash rained down for days.
There's no disputing that this has been Greece's worst fire season on record. Officials say more than 3,000 blazes have razed thousands of hectatres of forests and scrubland across the country since June. That's nearly triple last year's total, sparking growing public concern over why Greece suffers so many forest fires, and why the country's emergency services seem ill-equipped to deal with them despite their multimillion-dollar overhaul ahead of the 2004 Athens Olympics.
The authorities prefer to blame extreme weather conditions, including strong winds and back-to-back heatwaves that have turned Greece, and much of the Balkans, into a tinderbox. Still, rumors abound that some of the blazes may have been caused by arsonists hired by greedy developers to torch precious patches of greenery on which they want to build. In the last 20 years, large tracts of land have been cleared around Athens by fires, and eight of them have been cleared for construction because Greece lacks a forest register and effective legislation protecting the environment, conservationists argue. "The law," says Nikolaos Antonoglou, general secretary of Greece's Geotechnical Chamber, "stipulates that forests that have been burned down should be reforested immediately. But that isn't happening. Instead, land poachers are thriving, using the Greek state as an ally of their sinister endeavours."
Other Mediterranean countries have successfully installed heat sensors and cameras in forests to alert them to fires. They have also beefed up their fleets of forest rangers, which authorities in Greece effectively abolished in 1998 when nearly three-fourths of the rangers were forced to retirement. "The problem," says Stylianos Gatzogiannis, vice-president of the Hellenic Forestry Society, "is that the role of forest fire prevention and the service altogether has been downgraded and underfunded since the Olympics. The fire brigade which now holds jurisdiction over forest fires lacks the appropriate knowledge of these types of situations." Adding to the malaise, firefighters accuse the government of failing to replenish their equipment since the the 2004 Summer Olympics. "Our gloves are charred and the oxygen masks necessary to fight fires are non-existent," says Constantine Tzavaras, president of the Greek firefighters union in the greater Athens area. "We haven't been given fresh boots since they [authorities] sent fresh batches ahead of the Olympics."
This week alone, firefighting fatigue claimed the lives of four people two firefighters and two civilians upping the death toll to nine since the start of the season. Blazes continued to rage in all corners of the country, razing thousands of crops, scores of livestock and a number of homes. Hordes of tourists were forced to evacuate hotels and holiday resorts, fleeing Greece as local governors declared states of emergency in a raft of districts and islands. Bewildered by the crisis, Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis purportedly scrapped plans for an early election, turning instead to Russian President Vladimir Putin for urgent firefighting assistance (a fleet of water-bombers, helicopters and amphibious planes). Retinues of state officials were also dispatched to blaze-hit regions to assess the damage as socialist opponents riled against the government's handling of the crisis, billing it "catastrophic in this season of hell." With millions of Athenians fleeing the capital for a few weeks of summer respite, such fiery debate, say pundits, will peter out. But with an election due in the coming months, the authorities will be forced to take drastic steps to prepare for next summer. And in the mean time, the Greek flag will continue flying at half-mast over Parnitha.