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It’s time for sustainable reconstruction in Greece September 2, 2007

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In 1963, a devastating landslide buried Mikro Horio, a small village near Karpenisi, killing 13 people and destroying nearly all the houses. Many lives were spared, as it was a Sunday and many of the villagers were at church. The government of the time, led by the late Constantine Karamanlis, responded quickly, dispatching relief aid to the victims.

The state supported the reconstruction of Mikro Horio, while the architecture firm of Apostolos Doxiadis hammered out a town plan and four distinct architectural designs. Thus rather than ending up with a cement ghetto, like what happened after the earthquakes in Volos, Cephalonia and Zakynthos, the damaged area was transformed into a model village, featuring traditional stone houses and all the necessary infrastructure. Today, Mikro Horio is a major tourist attraction.

olive_tree_burns.jpg An olive tree burns in Mount Taigetos on Friday 24th August 2007.

The wounds left by the devastating fires in the Peloponnese will only be remedied and the inhabitants return to their homes, and their rural livelihoods, if the reconstruction work pledged by the government is carried out on the basis of a thorough and sustainable architectural and town plan and not in an anarchic fashion based on unchecked and party monitored handouts.

Ileia, Arcadia, Messinia and Evia must follow the example of Evritania. There is no shortage of scientists and funds but it will take a good dose of political will. The state has the money to help; our EU peers are about to approve extra funds while more than 150 million euros has flowed in in private donations. There is no excuse for spending the money on makeshift constructions.

Economy Minister Giorgos Alogoskoufis has already requested a special plan for the reconstruction and growth of fire-ravaged areas. He must start with urban planners and architects.


Experts say fires were a ‘disaster waiting to happen’ September 2, 2007

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A long, hard look at emergency procedures is needed, they say > A combination of dangerously dried-out forests and woefully under-equipped firefighters led to the lethal spread of fires that killed 63 people in Greece, experts and witnesses to the fires told AFP.

While Greek firefighters said yesterday that they were finally winning the battle against the fires that have burned for eight days, thoughts turned to how the blazes had been able to lay waste to such huge swathes of the country.

“There is a lack of fire prevention, lack of training for firefighters, a terrible lack of coordination and a shortage of funding and equipment,” Nikos Georgiadis, a forestry specialist at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), told AFP.

“A friend who is a firefighter told me that he and his colleagues were working without even having a map of the area that was burning. They were being sent off with little more than a bottle of water and an ax,” Georgiadis said. Dozens of witnesses to the fires gave similar accounts. The crumbling of traditions dating back centuries also contributed to the catastrophe, he said.

In a country where forest covers about 45 percent of the land, it used to be customary for farmers and shepherds to clear the bushes and brush from between trees, removing what can act as kindling for bigger fires.

With rural populations aging rapidly, that job is now carried out by the local authorities, or is supposed to be. “The Forestry Service only got the funding for cleaning the forests in June or July this year. And in any case, it wasn’t enough money,” said Georgiadis.

With a general election fast approaching on September 16, the conservative government of Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis was quick to blame arsonists for the fires, pointing to the fact that several appeared to break out almost simultaneously in more than one region.

Furthermore, in the two months before the fires broke out on August 24, Greece had been roasted by three heat waves that left pine and cypress trees and olive groves parched and susceptible to fire.

Costas Kolovas, a farmer from Chrissafa in the Peloponnese peninsula that suffered the most destruction, said that while he too believed arsonists had been at work, the state had failed to perform its duties.

“As the flames swept in, there wasn’t a single fire engine in sight. We had to deal with the fires on our own,” he told an AFP reporter.

When flames tore through the western Peloponnese last weekend, the heat was so intense that car windscreens popped and melted. In the mountainous areas where they hit hardest, people desperately piled into vehicles in a bid to escape along the twisting roads. Dozens did not make it.

Luc Jorda, the fire chief in the Bouches-du-Rhone area of southern France where forest fires are a common occurrence, said warnings of the imminent inferno apparently came too late to allow the villagers to flee. In a telephone interview with AFP from Marseille, he said the Greek authorities had to take a long, hard look at their emergency procedures in the wake of the disaster.

“France had a similar experience in 1979 when almost the whole of the south went up in flames. That led to sweeping measures being taken,” Jorda said. “The Greek authorities are going to have to look at their system for evacuating and warning inhabitants as well as the organization and deployment of firefighters.”

Sheer manpower was also an issue in the disaster. There are 30,000 firefighters in southern France, compared with just 17,500, of which 5,500 are seasonal workers with little training, in the whole of Greece, according to official figures. Jorda said he also questioned the Greeks’ reliance on tackling the fires from the air with water-bombing planes and helicopters in preference to using firefighters on the ground. Such aircraft are often grounded as the fires take hold because thick smoke makes visibility difficult or strong winds make flying dangerous.

Woodcutters a vital part of recovery September 2, 2007

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Bare mountain slopes blackened by fire in Parnitha need to be protected as vital topsoil risks being washed away in the first rains

greece_in_fires.jpg  In August, after massive fires on Mount Parnitha, woodcutters felled blackened stumps to clear the land and build dams to contain soil. These flood prevention dams will prove invaluable in the first rains, allowing seeds to germinate and vegetation to re-emerge, eventually. 

The first weekend in August, up above the empty city of Athens on Mount Parnitha, an army of about 220 woodcutters spread out over the slopes scorched in this summer’s earlier forest fires. Aside from a few day-trippers heading for the casino higher up, the few firefighters who have remained on watch were the only other people around.

On the footpaths through what was once lush forest, the landscape is blackened. Despite a ban on access, there is nothing to stop anyone from venturing out here but there is little to attract them now.

The woodcutters came to Athens from northern and central Greece just a few days after the fires were extinguished and went to work. Several are from Halkidiki and Achilaos, near Volos. Others are from Livadi, Elassona. The work is distributed through local cooperatives and the Forestry Service which sets the tasks to be carried out and recruits the workers. Some of them took part in the erosion control projects after the fires on Mount Pendeli in 1995 and 1998, on the island of Samos in 2000, in Aigion in 2001 and elsewhere.

They work before dawn to avoid as much of the heat of the day as they can, but don’t finish until late afternoon. The volume of work depends on the extent of the destruction.

“We build flood-prevention dams wherever we have access. In this case, on Parnitha, that is what we are doing nearly everywhere on the mountain, since there are not many steep slopes. There is a lot of work but most of it is relatively easy,” said Ilias Kaprinis. “The vegetation is sparse and the trees not very tall. It is easy to maneuver when cutting them down. Otherwise, there is the danger of getting hit by a falling tree.”

“Felling trees is the main part of our work, because it is also the most dangerous,” said Giorgos Varvarezos, head of the Elassona cooperative. “You have to learn how to make the right cuts and to cut guidelines within the trunk so that the tree will fall where you want it to, otherwise… We all have some bad memories.”

As they saw at the blackened stumps, they are covered in soot. Most of them can’t stand wearing masks. “We know it’s not good for us, but when the sun is high in the sky it’s unbearable,” they said.

After the timber is cut and branches lopped off, the trunks are dragged away by mule to where the dams are to be built across slopes, according to the lay of the land. Every dam consists of several logs and supports placed vertically to withstand its own weight. The only material used is the wood from the burnt forest, nothing else. The only extra material they need is fuel and oil for the saws and fodder for the mules. Looking up from the bottom of the mountain, the dams look like a staircase going up the slope.

The work is extremely vital to the future of the mountain. Flood-prevention dams will halt the flow of rainwater which would otherwise find nothing to prevent it from washing away all the topsoil now that the vegetation has been destroyed. They will contain the soil, the seeds and the burnt vegetation which will be able to decompose, and prevent erosion. At the same time, as the trunks used to make the dams will decompose faster as they are in direct contact with the soil, they will enrich it with valuable organic matter, allowing seeds to propagate and if all goes well, create a new forest.

“That’s how the Pendeli forest began to grow again after the 1995 destruction, until it was burnt again and was completely destroyed. If it goes up in flames again, forget it, it’s lost,” said Nikos Batzoyiannis sadly, little knowing that his words were to prove prophetic, as Pendeli caught fire again on August 16, a foretaste of the terrible destruction that was to follow in the rest of the country.

“We expect to work together with timber merchants, but the way forests are going up in smoke one after the other, where are we expected to find timber?”

Most of the woodcutters have followed in their fathers’ footsteps. Over time, however, their working methods have changed. Chainsaws replaced axes back in the 1960s and so fewer hands are needed. At the same time, imports from Scandinavia and other countries have increased and synthetic materials have also replaced expensive timber.

The deadline for repairing the slopes of Parnitha was the end of September, before the first autumn rains. Now that Parnitha is just one of hundreds of slopes that need protection, they will have their work cut out for them.

EU pledges major aid package as fires wreak more destruction September 2, 2007

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First payment of 200 million euros to be given now; another 400 million euros to follow

European Commissioner for Regional Policy Danute Hubner pledged 200 million euros in immediate EU aid following talks with Economy Minister Giorgos Alogoskoufis.

European Union Regional Policy Commissioner Danute Hubner yesterday pledged to immediately release 200 million euros in EU aid for the regeneration of fire-ravaged areas in Greece and to earmark another 400 million euros for disbursement soon. But even as Hubner inspected the burnt areas during a helicopter tour to assess the damage wreaked, firefighters continued to struggle with three major fires.

The worst of yesterday’s blazes were on Mount Parnon and other parts of Arcadia in the Peloponnese, as well as in Evia. Firefighters were reported to have lost control of the Mount Parnon blaze late last night, despite a concerted rescue effort from the air involving five water-dropping craft.

Two fires that broke out on Thursday, one in the Municipality of Gortyna, where eight villages have been evacuated, and one near the power station in Megalopolis, were also burning last night. In Arcadia, firefighters said they were surprised by a sudden intensification of winds that reignited blazes in Sarakini and Karytaina.

The fire service stressed the importance of bringing the situation under control before the country’s fourth heat wave peaks today with temperatures topping 40C (104F). «Fires are receding overall but that does not mean that the danger has been eliminated,» a fire service official said.

Meanwhile, the EU pledged to release immediately two hundred million euros with another 400 million euros likely to follow soon, Commissioner Hubner said. But the final sum is likely to reach 1 billion euros, Economy Ministry sources said. Donations were boosted by the US government’s pledge of 950,000 euros and China’s promise of 720,000 euros.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso was due to arrive in Athens late last night in what was seen as a show of EU solidarity for the fire-ravaged country. Barroso was expected to tour afflicted areas and speak to homeless residents.

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis is in Italy where she has been discussing with her Italian counterpart Massimo D’Alema, the possible creation of a common firefighting force for Southeastern Europe, discussed at the end of last month in Paris by Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis and French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Bakoyannis and D’Alema agreed «to work on transforming proposals into specific initiatives to establish a common, effective mechanism for preventing and combatting natural disasters.»

Karamanlis yesterday said that regeneration efforts would be primarily focused on «rebuilding the lives» of local producers of olive oil and fruit and vegetables, whose livelihoods have been destroyed.

Some 4 percent of the population have incurred losses over the past week of fires, while nearly a quarter (23 percent) claim to know someone who was affected, according to a poll conducted by VPRC on behalf of Skai.

A delegation of 80 woodcutters, who had been working on the charred land on Mount Parnitha for the past month, were yesterday sent to Arcadia to start cutting down burnt trees and establishing anti-fire zones. By yesterday evening, the woodcutters had created a 1.5-kilometer stretch, southeast of the fire at Karytaina. «Our aim is to prevent the fire from spreading to Mainalos,» Nafpaktos forest ranger Giorgos Fountas said.

Fires in Greece under control, rain in the north, Barroso promises Greece fire aid September 2, 2007

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Forest fires in Greece are for the most part under control, fire fighters said on Sunday morning. Even the last two worrying fires on Mount Parnon on the east of the Peloponnese peninsula and in mountainous Arcadia were dying down, according to the fire fighters.

However, the situation remained tense as winds were expected to increase in strength over the next three days from Sunday.

In northern Greece, meanwhile, the situation calmed after heavy rainfalls and falling temperatures ended the threat of further fires. Temperatures are not expected to rise above 32 degrees Celsius on Sunday and over the following days.

On Saturday, the EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and the environment ministers of the European Union promised Greece support for the reconstruction of the areas badly affected by the fires.

Barroso promises Greece fire aid > European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso has toured fire damaged areas in southern Greece by helicopter.

He promised aid to relieve areas where 64 people died and an estimated 190,000 hectares (469,000 acres) of forest and farmland were destroyed.

“We are with you and we will stay with you … we will do everything we can to support Greece,” Barroso said after a two-hour tour of the ravaged Peloponnese peninsula with Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis. “The Greek problem is a European problem … Now we must rebuild what has been destroyed.”

On Friday, the European Union said Greece would probably receive 237 million US dollars (£117.5 million) in emergency aid and could be eligible for another 546 million US dollars (£270.7 million), after the government issues an official assessment of the damage – currently estimated at more than 1.6 billion US dollars (£793 million).

All major fires in the Peloponnese and the island of Evia have been generally contained since Wednesday, after burning for a week, but firefighters continue to battle nightly rekindled blazes that have destroyed more homes and forced village evacuations.

Fire Service spokesman Nikos Diamantidis said weather conditions were set to worsen, with temperatures reaching 40C.

“This is a particularly difficult and dangerous day, with winds set to strengthen. This combined with high temperatures requires a high degree of activity from the Fire Service,” Diamantidis said.

Greece fires under control except Mount Parnon blaze September 2, 2007

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A fire raged in Mount Parnon near the Greek town of Sparta for a ninth day Sunday but other blazes in the devastated Mediterranean country were under control, the fire services said.

Four water-bombing planes and a helicopter were deployed early Sunday to battle the blames around Mount Parnon but no villages were threatened, a spokesman for the fire service said.

“This day will be difficult again because we expect strong winds in the country’s west, including the Peloponnese,” he said but underlined that temperatures were expected to be lower in the Athens region.

The Peloponnese inferno started on August 24 in the wake of a heatwave, the third to hit Greece since the beginning of the summer. The fires have claimed at least 63 lives and destroyed 200,000 hectares (494,000 acres) of forests and farmland.

Greece was plunged into a national disaster as villages were consumed by flames that moved faster than a car and people were burned to death as they attempted to escape.

Two other planes and three helicopters were meanwhile despatched Sunday to fight fires in the ancient town of Megalopolis and Karytaina in the central region of Arcadia and nearby Messenia, he said.

The official said three other fires which broke out nine days ago in the island of Evia were still burning but under “partial control.” Two other blazes in Ioannina and Kilkis had been contained but a new one that broke out on Saturday in the northern prefecture of Imathia would be put under control later in the day, he added.

Greece hopes autumn rains will end 10-day fires September 2, 2007

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Greece’s first autumn rains on Sunday raised hopes of dousing forest fires that have killed at least 63 people while a grieving village buried a mother and her four children who perished in the flames.

Firefighters were still battling blazes, mainly in the southern Peloponnese region, but rains in northern Greece were heading south and could help, the fire brigade said.

“We are expecting some rains in the Peloponnese but we are not certain they will be intense enough to put out the fires,” said fire brigade spokeswoman Sofia Mendi. “Today is a critical day because we have strong winds.”

In the village of Artemida, perched on a charred Peloponnese mountain, locals held the funeral of the mother found dead still clutching her children, the most tragic image of the inferno’s trail of destruction.

“Our only hope is that they did not suffer too much, that they died from the smoke,” said a distraught relative who declined to be named.

The fires have raged for 10 days, forcing thousands to flee their homes, burning villages and large swathes of forest.

The conservative government has come under criticism for its handling of the crisis ahead of parliamentary elections on September 16. Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, who has blamed arsonists for the fires, has called for national unity. His administration has doled out at least 107 million euros ($146.2 million) in compensation.

“It can’t be a coincidence,” he told the Kathimerini paper on Sunday, vowing again to punish the culprits. “Facts, eyewitnesses and police findings indicate intent.”

The opposition socialist PASOK party has criticized the government but seems unable to capitalize on its woes. Opinion polls show the ruling New Democracy party holding a 2 percentage point lead over PASOK but support for both parties has waned since the fires began.

The fires nearly destroyed ancient Olympia, the birthplace of the Olympics, and their damage to the economy is estimated at 1.2 billion to 4 billion euros. The European Commission said it could provide up to 200 million euros from a ‘solidarity fund’.

Many Greeks believe rogue land developers set fires to make way for new construction. The World Conservation Union (IUCN), a Geneva-based global network of state and non-governmental groups, said inadequate rural planning had made the fires almost inevitable.

“Greece… will continue to face these crises year after year until legal and institutional issues pertaining to land development, changes in rural demographics and the collapse of traditional farming practices are addressed,” said IUCN’s Bill Jackson.