Greeks angry, confused over fires

Many locals say arsonists started the deadly fires that have swept the country in the past week.

Smoke billowed from behind the hill and the air crackled with heat. A raging fire – one of hundreds that have scorched Greece over the past week, killing at least 64 – was just over a mile away and heading toward this small cluster of ten homes on the Peloponnese peninsula.

But half a dozen residents of Kato Kotilio refused police orders to leave. They prepared to defend their homes by tamping down the flames with leafy branches hacked off of nearby trees.

"These fires have been started," insists Zoe Niova, who was born here, as she helped her sister clear vegetation from around her house. "It doesn't help that it's really dry, but these fires are not an accident."

Like Ms. Niova, most Greeks believe sinister forces are behind the deadly spate of fires that have swept across the country in the past few days, tipping Greece toward a political crisis as it heads into elections on Sept. 16. She and many others here are angry, but uncertain where to direct their frustration.

"Who knows?" she shrugged, when asked who would set such fires. "I don't know."

By the end of the week, Greek officials said they had most of the blazes under control. Focus shifted to relief efforts and the government began assessing the extent of the damage: The European Commission's European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS) estimates that 469,000 acres burned between Aug. 24 and 28 alone. The financial ministry now estimates the damage to be more than $1.6 billion, or 0.6 percent of Greece's GDP.

At a hillside junction outside Kato Kotilio, a volunteer in a battered white car stopped motorists entering the area and jotted down their license plate numbers. This is the front line against what government officials have hinted is an organized, even terrorist, attack against Greece.

Part of an 'asymmetric threat'?

Public Order Minister Vyron Polydoras, who is part of the ruling conservative New Democracy party, said the fires were part of an "asymmetric threat" and that the country's intelligence and antiterrorism agencies were investigating. At least six people have been charged, and dozens more arrested, on suspicion of starting fires.

George Papandreou, the leader of Greece's main opposition party the Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK), hit back, saying the government is attempting to find a scapegoat.

Ordinary Greeks largely agree that a conspiracy is at work, but aren't sure who to blame. A poll conducted on behalf of a local television station and newspaper found that 67 percent of respondents believed the fires were part of an organized plan by arsonists. Of those, 31 percent blamed foreign forces and 26 percent thought land developers were responsible.

But less than half thought that Pasok would have handled the fires any better. More voters are undecided now than before the current crisis and the poll results indicated that support for both major parties had fallen, with smaller, third parties likely to receive a boost in the coming elections.

That view was on display Wednesday night, when thousands of people dressed in black packed Syntagma Square in Athens to express solidarity with victims and frustration with the state's handling of the crisis. The crowd booed at leftists who arrived with political slogans and at police, who responded with stun grenades.

"I'm angry, but I don't know how to direct it," says Thanássis Tótsikas, a young Athenian who lost a friend this week in a fire near the village of Areopolis. "I can't understand why they can't put the fires out." In the coming election, he says, he plans to vote for Citizen, a small leftist party.

Environmental mismanagement?

Environmental groups and forestry experts dismiss charges of conspiracy, saying instead that land policy, environmental management, and climate change lie at the root of the crisis. Dr. Paulo Barbosa, a researcher at EFFIS, points out that Greece isn't the only country that has suffered from massive forest fires this year. Last year, 865,000 acres of European forest burned. This year, 1,850,000 already have. What is different this year is the bone-dry conditions, caused by a summer-long drought and soaring temperatures.

Back in Kato Kotilio, where villagers stood guard through the night Wednesday against what officials said was the last major fire still burning in the Peloponnesus, this week's events were all too familiar. The village and surrounding area was burned in 2000, during Greece's last major spate of fires.

Polyxeni Patrona and her sister Ioulia lost everything then: their house, their livestock, their olive trees. Their replanted groves are just beginning to bear fruit again. They criticized the aid they received from the government, then under Pasok, saying it was too small, took years to arrive, and was too heavily taxed when it finally did.

The government has promised to be better this time and has already started distributing relief money. On Wednesday, the first day aid was distributed, the government said that 7,500 people received $33 million.

As helicopters roared overhead, store owner Paraskavas Karathanassis arrived with a truck load of water to help people protect their homes. He says he's helping because the government's response is disorganized. But the government shouldn't bear full responsibility, he says. "Global warming and agriculture have dried out the land here. "The land itself is to blame."

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