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Arson as development strategy? Greeks are forced to look inward

August 30, 2007|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

MT. PENTELI, GREECE — If history is any guide, vast areas blackened in Greece's deadly wildfires eventually will sprout anew -- with luxury villas, fancy hotels and expensive vacation homes.

The fires, which killed at least 64 people across the country and now threaten to topple the government, have forced Greeks to ask painful questions about what caused the blazes and how they were able to spread such destruction.

Among the most insidious triggers, according to officials and environmentalists, is a practice by unscrupulous builders of deliberately setting fire to forests to render the land available for development.

Greece is the only country in the European Union that does not have a forest registry. Once a forest burns down, the legal status of the land also goes up in smoke. Absent records, designating the land for reforestation is too difficult, and it is often up for grabs. In some cases, developers have moved in with the help of corrupt officials.

"Historically, this is a very big problem," said Demetres Karavellas, chief executive of the Greek branch of the World Wildlife Fund. "There is no doubt that at least some of the fires this week were due to arson linked to property development."

The pattern is especially damaging here on Mt. Penteli, about 13 miles north of Athens, once a thickly forested hill and now an overbuilt affluent suburban enclave where four fires in the last decade have been blamed on arsonists.

Flames that stalked the mountain late last week topped the ridge and marched down through the northern edge of the community, incinerating homes and forcing hundreds of well-to-do Greeks to flee.

Resident George Papageorgiou, a retired air force officer surveying the damage Wednesday, said he was convinced that this fire, like previous ones, could be linked to a scheme to grab the land.

"Houses here are very expensive," he said, noting that he has watched dozens of homes spring up around him, some on land cleared by fire.

His property was spared this time, thanks to the quick work of volunteer firefighters, he said. But a block away the scene was different: The gutted hulks of million-dollar homes loomed on a hillside scarred with spindly burned tree trunks the color of chocolate in a sea of ash. A single swing set of red and royal blue could be seen standing amid the wasteland.

It was unclear Wednesday how many of the hundreds of fires that have swept Greece over six days were caused by deliberate action and how many were the result of negligence, combined with a severe drought, an enduring heat wave and high winds.

Officials say that at least half a million acres have been charred by the fires, which razed entire villages, consumed farmlands, killed livestock and deer and singed priceless antiquities. Some of the wildfires raged through beachfront olive groves and pine stands on the Peloponnese peninsula and other valuable property, but others were on land that is not coveted by developers.

What is clear is that a terrible fire season was easily predictable, and the government is coming under searing criticism that it failed to take adequate precautions and to effectively fight the disaster.

In scores of villages, residents had to desperately fight fires themselves when no help arrived. Many of those who died were trapped in their cars or fields as they tried to flee. The state appeared to be a shambles: Greeks had to turn to television, phoning in to recount their harrowing ordeal and plead for rescue while TV commentators gave advice on how to survive.

The conservative government of Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis was quick to blame arsonists -- in part, commentators say, to deflect blame from its own missteps. Among many mistakes, some observers say, was putting responsibility for the overall crisis in the hands of a woefully inexperienced official.

Greece is to hold a national election Sept. 16, and Karamanlis and his New Democracy Party have begun to slip in polls in which they had been leading. Many pollsters say the fire debacle could cost Karamanlis the election, and his opposition is eager to exploit the public anger.

"The state could not protect lives," Socialist party leader George Papandreou said. "We are humiliated by the inability of the government to save the lives of our fellow citizens."

However, the public outrage being directed at the government could also tarnish the opposition, pollsters said. The Panhellenic Socialist Movement, or PASOK, ruled for more than a decade until 2004 and could be blamed for many of the land-abuse problems that exacerbated the fires.

The government was already on notice after wildfires in June that scorched about 10% of the precious Parnitha National Park, one of the last patches of virgin forest in this part of the world. Many here now see that as an omen, a moment when the government apparently allowed the fires to rage for a couple of days before acting.

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