Athens fires driven back, nuns rescued

A multinational effort appears to be bringing fires under control. But Greece's conservative government may suffer anyway over its handling of the crisis.

Nikolas Giakoumidis/AP
Volunteers from the Red Cross work at the scene of a forest fire in Pikermi, north of Athens, on Monday.

The efforts of thousands of Greek firefighters and soldiers combined with firefighting planes dispatched by Italy and France made progress against the worst wildfires around Athens in two years, creating optimism in Greece that the Athens suburbs are safe.

But the electoral chances of Greece's conservative government, expected to face a new election next March, could suffer. In an election shortly after Greece's 2007 fires, the conservatives' majority in parliament was eroded, in part because of public anger at the handling of that crisis.

In the two years since, Greece has not added to its fleet of 21 fire-fighting planes. As the fires gathered steam over the weekend, some mayors were reduced to calling TV stations and appealing for firefighting help, exposing a slow, poorly coordinated firefighting response from the government that echoed 2007.

Reuters reports that morning winds on Monday had stoked the blazes that have been raging in Attica – the region that includes Athens' 4 million residents – for days, until Greek firefighting planes were joined by foreign forces, repeatedly dive-bombing the fronts with fire retardants.

"The fire is still raging but not with the intensity of previous days," said fire brigade spokesman Giannis Kapakis. "Fire-fighters are making every effort to contain its front." Only three main fronts remained in east Attica, where a state of emergency was declared on Saturday, burning mainly forest and threatening fewer communities. "Air forces are operating since early morning and we hope the fire front will be controlled within the day," said Iordanis Louizos, mayor of Nea Makri, a town near the fires' frontline.

To be sure, the Associated Press reports that as of the early afternoon in Greece on Monday, six major fires continued to burn across the country, fueled by the parched conditions and high temperatures of late summer. Twelve Greek Orthodox nuns of the monastery of St. Eprhaim of Nea Makri were rescued by firefighters, and the reputed remains of St. Ephraim – objects of veneration to many Greek Orthodox who seek his intercession in healing – were carried to safety in a basket.

AP described a multinational effort to douse the blazes:

Firefighting planes and helicopters from France, Italy and Cyprus were operating outside Athens, with more planes due to arrive later Monday and Tuesday from Spain, Turkey and the European Union, Civil Protection Agency officials said. At least five people were being treated for burns and several dozen had reported breathing problems, but no injuries were serious, Health Ministry officials said... There were no firm estimates on the thousands of residents who evacuated or the scores of homes that were torched. Athens regional governor Yiannis Sgouros said damage would be assessed once the fires were put out. "There are some signs of optimism but no letting up of the firefighting effort. We have a chance to contain this nightmare that has burned the city's main forest area," he said.

The BBC is carrying a series of eyewitness accounts of the fires and the disruption they are causing.

In a status report on the fires as of Monday afternoon, the semi-official Athens News Agency said a fire that started in northwest Attica on Sunday was nearing the resort town of Porto Germeno and "was the most ominous of the dozens of wildfires reported in the country."

Greek opposition politicians have attacked the government's handling of the fires, and some have alleged that many of them were deliberately set. Aleka Papariga, secretary general of the Communist Party of Greece, alleged the fires were set to clear protected forest land so that it could later be sold to developers.

Papariga stressed that, in her opinion, the essence of the problem is that "when there is an organised and well-planned arson plan aimed at the choice tracts of land, and when there is also an enacted framework allowing land speculation, there can be no high-level civil defence plan.

In August of 2007, a series of fires claimed 64 lives, burned 500,000 acres and caused about $1.6 billion in damage. Then, as now, there was speculation of dark intent and that the fires could cause the conservative government to fall. Polling at the time found that while Greeks were unhappy with the government's handling of the fires, they didn't believe the opposition would have done a better job.

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... 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.
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