Why is Greece on fire?

As at least 170 wildfires spread, many say that a lack of environmental protection is to blame.

The scenes of desperation played out on television: residents phoned local media outlets begging to be saved as walls of fire descended on their houses and villages, while overstretched firefighters battled more than 170 blazes that erupted seemingly simultaneously.

On Sunday, at least 51 people were confirmed dead in the worst series of fires to hit Greece in decades. And still, fires, many of them blamed on arsonists, continued to spread across the country, fanned by gale-force winds and fed by vegetation dried out from long months of drought.

Now, as authorities struggle to deal with the immediate crisis, the fires have pushed the environment to the top of the political agenda in a country where such issues previously won little attention. With Greek national elections less than three weeks away, questions are being raised about how seriously the government takes the protection of the country's open spaces.

Calling the fires an "unspeakable tragedy," Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis declared a state of emergency Saturday, along with three days of mourning. For the time being, campaigning in the election has been called off and some analysts suggest that the election may even be delayed. Indeed, the fires have spawned outrage and anger across the country.

"Right now we're in state of hiatus, and no one knows how it will finally shake out, but clearly it will be a key issue," says John Psaropoulos, editor of the Athens News, from near Zaharo, one of the hardest hit areas of Greece where dozens have been killed.

This has been one of the hottest and driest summers in recent history, and much of southern Europe has been plagued by forest fires. In Greece, the dry conditions have played a role. But many of the fires, government and forestry experts say, have been set by arsonists, hoping to clear land for development.

"So many fires breaking out simultaneously in so many parts of the country cannot be a coincidence," Mr. Karamanlis said in a nationally televised address Saturday. "The state will do everything it can to find those responsible and punish them."

Already, at least three people have been arrested for setting this weekend's fires; one, accused of setting a blaze that killed six people, is being charged for murder as well as for arson. But in the past, local activists say, the state has had a poor record of catching and prosecuting these types of arsonists. The problem persists, they say, and in large part perpetrators have previously gotten away with it.

"Most of the reasons concern changing of land use – from forest to something else [such as] construction, or building, or to grazing, or agriculture," explains Nikos Georgiadis, head forest officer for the Greek office of WWF (the World Wildlife Fund). "But the response from the government has not been effective at all."

But there is beginning to be a backlash against government inaction – as Greek villagers desperately battle blazes using garden hoses and buckets of water – that is likely to intensify as a result of this weekend's fires.

Earlier this summer, after a fire burned one of the last remaining forests on Mount Parnitha, near Athens, thousands of people took the streets outside the Greek parliament demanding more action from the government to protect forests and ensure that burned areas were replanted.

Many observers saw that fire as a turning point in local politics toward a greater green consciousness.

"People in Athens, but also around Greece, are becoming more green," says Dr. Georgiadis, who said that hundreds of people called the WWF office in the aftermath of that fire, outraged and offering to help. "Since the response that we got after the big forest fire on Parnitha mountain, there is a big change. More and more people became sensitive on environmental matters."

Greece has one of the worst records in the European Union on environmental issues, and on forest protection in particular. Environmental groups say recycling is in its infancy, development is largely unregulated, and protected areas neglected.

Although forested areas cannot legally be built on, that law is difficult to enforce because Greece – unlike every other country in the European Union – has no national record of what land is forested.

For now, the country is focusing on putting out the blazes and helping those affected. Thousands are now homeless and whole villages destroyed. At least 12 countries have responded to Greece's plea for international help.

But ultimately, says Georgiadis, Greece must develop a long-term plan for saving its natural spaces.

"Forests are an ecosystem that needs time to grow, time to manage," he says. "It's not something you can do in one or two weeks."

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