Wildfires in Greece: The real arsonists

Eleni Mitsou

This year’s wildfires have burned an unprecedented number of forest areas and settlements. Nearly 1 million acres of forested land (930,000 as of August 8), and 1000 homes in the municipality of Mandudi, in Evia. Nothing like this has ever happened before.  

The government is trying to find excuses, like for example the fact that too many wildfires were set in a short period of time throughout the country (which is a usual situation in Greek summers), or that the heat wave lasted too long. Arson devices are “discovered” here and there and the government is trying to create the impression that there was a centrally organised arsonist plan (using an investigation announced by the Prosecutor’s Office of the Supreme Court). The only real incendiary mechanism is the policy that has been followed over the last decades by New Democracy and all the other parties in office.     

The dissolution of the Forestry Service back in the 90s and the continuous underfunding and depletion of the Fire Service for decades are the main reasons why northern Evia, northern Attica and large parts of the Peloponnese area were burned to the ground, even with zero wind!   

Explosive device 1: Dissolution of the forestry service  

A fire is extinguished at the first second with a glass of water, at the first minute with a bucket of water, in the first ten minutes with a ton of water. This “figure” is known to all those who have been involved in forest firefighting professionally or voluntarily. It shows the enormous importance of attacking a fire quickly. The bigger it grows, the more difficult it is to extinguish, while when it reaches mega-fire proportions, as happened e.g. in northern Evia, it will usually only be extinguished when it encounters “natural obstacles”, such as the sea or when the wind pushes it towards already burnt land.   

In order for a fire to be spotted and addressed immediately, there must be observers in the forests. This means having a dense network of people patrolling and stationed at key points in the forests to spot fires at their start. Then you need to rapidly approach the fire in the forest with small, manoeuverable vehicles (usually specially adapted agricultural vehicles) and deal with it on the spot, before it reaches a major road accessible to the large fire brigade vehicles. We used to have such people in Greece. They were rangers of the Forest service, who knew the part of forest under their responsibility “like the back of their hand”, they knew how to use counter-fire techniques (on purpose burning of a part of the forest in the path of the fire, so that when the fire gets there, it can find no fuel and stop); they were also able to use the local communities effectively in the fight (instead of fully evacuating villages and settlements as Mitsotakis did). Overall, they could deal much more quickly and effectively with almost any forest fire.  

In the late 1990s, forest firefighting was removed from the Forest Service and passed under the responsibility of the Fire Department, which neither had the proper training nor the proper equipment. The Fire department is able to address urban fires; but a forest wildfire is a whole different story. At the same time, the strangulation of the now “useless” service began.  

Today, the youngest forest ranger is 55 years old. The last time the forest service made new recruitments was 17 years ago. The situation then was already dramatic: there were only 1,000 forest rangers, meaning that each ranger was responsible for 100,000 acres of forest! On top of this, already in 2006, the 1,100 forest guarding services existing in Greece were no longer active, nor were the 284 forest protection stations, while very few of the 300 forestry departments were open. It is obvious that under these circumstances, not even basic actions for the protection of forests could be taken.   

At the same time, the underfunding of the necessary works in the forests was and remains shocking. This year the forest rangers service requested EUR 17.696.538, in order to carry out basic fire protection works and maintain forest roads. The government only granted them 10% of that, just EUR 1.700.000! This was not because of money shortage. It was that the government allocated important amounts of funding  to “their friends”. Typical examples are the ones of Aegean airlines (which received 120 million euros), Fraport (178 million euros) and the road toll companies (84 million euros to cover the losses of the first lockdown alone). These companies requested and received fresh public funding, not to avoid collapse, not to keep their staff, but because their profitability decreased due to the lockdown.  

Explosive Mechanism 2: Underfunding, understaffing and nepotism in the fire service  

The situation of the Fire Department may not be as dire as the Forest Service’s, it is nevertheless in no way able to effectively deal with more than one major wildfire at a time. We have already experienced this in 2018: back then all the fire brigade forces were sent to the Gerania Mountains wildfire, while only 2 fire engines (one professional and one volunteer) were operating in Mati when the fire started. 102 people died at Mati, while the whole settlement was burnt to the ground, more than 1500 buildings suffered major damage in the neighboring areas and a huge pine forest was destroyed.  

The same story was repeated this year.   

The government chose to place most of the forces on North Attica, while the residents of North Evia waited in vain for fire-fighting planes and vehicles. According to residents’ testimonies, before reinforcements from other countries arrived in Evia, only 160-200 firefighters and one helicopter were operating. The huge fire front of Agia Anna was fought by only 30 firefighters. What could these forces do against a wildfire already spreading from the Gulf of Evia to the Aegean sea (i.e. over 30 km wide)?   

In 2018, after the wildfires in Mati and Gerania Mountains, fire service trade unionists denounced the lack of 4,000 firefighters from the service.   

Retiring firemen are not being replaced with new recruits. This situation is not new. In the major wildfires in the Peloponnese in 2007, when 84 people died and huge rural and forest areas were burnt, it was made known that the fire brigade was missing 29% of its necessary staff! Further to the Troika legislation, vacant positions are at some point deleted if there are no new recruits, and the services need to draw up new organisational charts; it becomes therefore clear that half of the Fire Brigade’s strength has been cut down in the last decades.   

While the Fire Brigade is forced to operate with fewer and fewer staff, the number of officers who had important experience in dealing with forest fires over the last few decades is being reduced due to retirements.   

The icing on the cake is nepotism evaluation and transfers. An experienced officer may serve one year in Samos and the next one in Peloponnese. Once he has mastered the ins and outs of a forest and drawn up operational plans, (s)he moves to another area. Valuable knowledge and experience are wasted and trivialised on the altar of party favours and bribes – the long-standing infection of all public services in the country for decades. This situation is more and more expanding, as it feeds a large proportion of the votes received by the parties in power – these same parties that denounce the lack of meritocracy and various problems in the public sector every time they want to promote new budget cuts.  

The cuts in the Fire Service are not just on staff but also on resources. Underfunding keeps fire engines and aerial resources grounded. Money is missing for both maintenance and spare parts for the vehicles, as well as for personal protection equipment for firefighters (boots, gloves, etc.). After the deadly wildfire in Mati in 2018, it was reported that 25% of the vehicles were immobilised due to damage, while another 25% were old, more than 15 years old, which obviously had an impact on their operational capacity. Nothing has changed since then. On the contrary, this year there have been more complaints about fire-fighting planes grounded because of damage.   

Only police forces were abundant during these wildfires. Police with new vehicles for blind evacuations of settlements – instead of organizing and utilizing local communities in the firefighting effort. While the Fire and Forestry Departments are suffering from understaffing, the government is recruiting more police forces and creating new police corps, even in universities, and the expenditure on police equipment is even more infuriating. The country is being set on fire again and again, public health is undergoing an immense crisis because of the pandemic, public education is collapsing, but the government keeps on cutting budgets and steps up repression to silence any criticism, any dissenting voices and to strike down any struggle.  

Explosive Device 3: Setting aside the experts   

Before this year’s wildfires were set in North Evia and North Attica, the National Observatory had worked on models , which predicted with great accuracy where fires would start and how they would move.   

Not only were they never taken into account, but the government falsely claimed that the direction of the fires could not be predicted and that the wind was constantly changing direction.   

Ignoring knowledgeable scientists and experts who can seriously and effectively deal with a disaster is of course anything but new.   

Forest fire investigations expert, the forester Spyros Dafis, wrote the following after the 2007 fires, concerning operational centers and firefighting coordination:  

“If, despite all efforts for prevention and immediate intervention, the fire cannot be brought under control and grows in size, then the more difficult, complex and costly task of forest firefighting, or rather fire containment, begins. The hardest part of the operation is coordination. And this is where the mess is made in our country, because anyone, be it a minister, a secretary general, a district administrator, a prefect or a general, they all consider themselves to be self-evidently capable of coordinating such a difficult and complex operation. All over the world, regardless of which forces are involved in forest firefighting, the responsibility for coordination lies with the local forester. They know better than anyone else the topography of their area, the road network, the water intake locations, the flammability of the ecosystems in their area of responsibility, the possible suitable locations to stop the fire, the locations suitable for anti-fire application, the available staff in terms of forestry officials, forest firefighters and forestry workers, any threatened buildings and settlements, while they also know the ecology and specificity of forest fires. ”  

Explosive device 4: Forest killing laws  

Whenever a major wildfire breaks out, the government puts the blame on… arsonists. While arson is not the reason for the majority of wildfires, many of the most devastating ones are the result of such criminal acts. Nevertheless, as far as the recent fires are concerned, it is unlikely that they are the result of arson. Arsonists don’t start fires on a day when the wind is weak. They choose days with strong winds and when air assets don’t have much time to operate and contain the fire. These conditions did not apply to the fires of previous days.  

However, setting aside the physical perpetrators, policies themselves can be the moral perpetrators of the arsons. For decades now, all the governments have been drafting and voting for legislation, which declassifies burnt forest areas, and allows for building new settlements and tourist facilities in those areas It legalises illegal settlements, allows the installation of wind farms, allows mining, etc. At the end of the day, arson and destruction of forests are rewarded. And as long as this continues, they will never stop.  

Solidarity, struggle, system change 

The government will distribute a few crumbs to those affected by the wildfires. The picture is clear, judging from the amounts that have already been announced: 120,000 euros to the municipality of Madoudi. This is a municipality of 12,000 inhabitants, so the government is allocating 10€ per person, for works and infrastructure that need to be rebuilt! Some people have literally lost everything, especially those whose survival was directly linked to nature, like the resin collectors of northern Evia. They have nothing substantial to expect from the government: a small one-off compensation and a starvation allowance for a limited period of time, as is customary in such cases, and of course not sufficient for people who have lost their homes and the means of making their living.  

“People save the people”. We have already seen local communities organizing themselves in order to deal with the wildfires, once they realized that the government has completely abandoned them. Some people showed tremendous self-sacrifice: they stayed behind and tried to stop the fire front with a hose, with a chainsaw, with some water from the tanks of farm machinery. In some cases we saw them coming out victorious.   

We also saw solidarity being organized, once again by ordinary people: a delivery man who kept bringing cold water to the firefighters in Varibobi, when he had no orders to deliver, several groups rescuing wild and domestic animals and people who opened their homes to the fire victims.   

Along with solidarity which needs to grow stronger, we also need to organize our struggles. To avoid more tragedies in the future, the movements, the local communities, the militant workers’ unions, the radical left, must organize and demand:   

  • Mass recruitment in the Forest Service; forest firefighting must be re-established as the responsibility of the Forest Service. Also, mass recruitment in the Fire Department to strengthen the work of the Forest Service is required.  
  • Funding increase for both services.  
  • Training for local communities living near forests and inclusion of volunteers in operational plans for firefighting, as well as against flood – which will unfortunately happen in the coming period.     
  • Total protection of burnt areas. No declassification. Flood prevention and land retention works must start immediately. Reforestation under scientific supervision, if it is deemed necessary after observing the natural regeneration in the burnt areas.  
  • Restoration of homes and properties of all fire victims, totally financed by the state – with the sole exception of those with really high incomes and villas in the forests.  
  • Guaranteed jobs to all fire victims in the restoration, fire and flood prevention projects, until they can go back to the occupation they had before the wildfires. 

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