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Greek response to fires criticized

August 26, 2009|Associated Press

ATHENS — With a wildfire contained after raging for days near Athens, opposition parties and media lambasted the government Tuesday over its response to the blaze.

Firefighters patrolled smoldering areas north and east of the Greek capital, guarding against flare-ups while assessing the damage.

At least 150 homes have been damaged, officials said, while thousands of acres of pine forest, olive grove, brush and farmland have been destroyed. Experts said it would take generations to replace the forests, and that many were burned beyond the hope of natural regrowth.

It was the most destructive blaze in decades in the Attica region, and the worst in Greece since the 2007 wildfires that burned for more than two months and killed more than 70 people.

Officials have not said how the blaze started Friday night. Hundreds of forest fires ravage Greece every summer, and some are set intentionally -- often by unscrupulous land developers or farmers seeking to expand their grazing land.

The main opposition leader, George Papandreou of the Panhellenic Socialist Movement, accused the government of failing to coordinate its response or take decisive action against rogue developers and not making proper use of volunteers.

Throughout the four-day fight, volunteers tried to beat back the flames with pine branches, buckets of water and garden hoses. Several mayors were sharply critical of the help they received.

The conservative government defended its firefighting effort, which involved water-dropping aircraft from Italy, Cyprus and France. The government said Tuesday that it would provide financial aid to the owners of legally built homes that were destroyed or damaged.

Greek newspapers said, however, that the government had learned nothing from the 2007 wildfires, and had failed to improve fire protection measures and equipment.

"Fatal errors and omissions," the conservative daily Kathimerini said in a front-page headline. "The same mistakes were repeated all over. . . . Lack of coordination, a faulty assessment of the situation, delays and infighting."

Opposition papers were even more critical. The daily Eleftherotypia headlined one story on the fires with "The Criminal State." Another daily, Ta Nea, wrote, "It's the pine trees' fault!" -- a headline mocking Monday's statement by government spokesman Evangelos Antonaros that said, "Pine trees may be beautiful but they impede firefighting efforts."

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