For the last two years I’ve been lucky enough to miss the terrible fires: last year in ‘our’ area, and this year to have missed the worst ever in the Peleponnese especially, though we were on watch through June and July. These were not the first fires of the year, and I did write about them in July, this after the first ever demonstration on the issue of wild fire in what looked like the interests of planning and building, that took place in Athens after the fire which destroyed the woodland on Mount Parnitha which is close to Athens, and whose trees were essential to preventing the air quality of the city from getting worse. This was not the only fire at the time. From June onwards there have been several bursts. In mid July there was a wildfire on the Ymittos mountain that is very close to areas of Athens like the famous Kaisariani (famous for its ‘leftism’, wartime resistance and the German reprisals that took place there), which is itself close to the city centre. Again it was not just around the capital city, terrible fires broke out in the North of the Peleponnese in villages around Corinth and also a village close to Patras.
As I write this there are still fires burning in Arcadia (the centre of the Peleponnese) which had spread inland from the most devastated area where horrible deaths have taken place which is the West coast of the Peleponnese which seems to have begun in the south at Aeropolis which is close to where ‘our’ terrible fire started last year).
There has been a ‘blame game’ going on right through the summer and which has got louder still in the last week. It has entered into electoral politics since the ‘right’ wing prime minister Karamanlis (an indication in itself when his main opponent is a Papendreou of the dynastic nature of Greek politics) had confidently called a General Election to be held in September before this latest, and worst round of fires in which is estimated, 64 people died; 6000 houses lost; and 4million olive trees burnt (this might mean their destruction, or that they will not fruit again for several years). Also thousands of acres of forest and scrub. This blaming business has involved causes mixed in with the competence and lack of it in preventing and dealing with the fires.
When it comes to causes there is the context of global warming and the weather extremes the evidence suggests it is creating, taking different forms in different parts of the world. From experience, in the Peleponnese it has taken especially the form of stronger and more frequent winds. There have always been short periods of hot winds from the Sahara that come every year, but there are others, westnorthwesterly especially that are very frequent and strong. Also in the last 5-10 years there have been all sorts of seasonal weirdnesses. This year there were very high temperatures for a prolonged on-off period. Temperatures of 45C are not unknown but this summer they have been several days of them followed by the relief of mid-30s temperatures and then another burst of the 40s. This also followed an especially dry winter.
These are weather conditions made for fires. But there are also longer-term social/demographic changes in the Greek countryside. There has been rural depopulation for 60 years but though it may have levelled out has also left changes in how the land is used, and this has been exacerbated by the way ‘the commodity’ as featured in inordinately long TV advertisement breaks hit Greece as a wave.
One big change in land-use has been far fewer animals are kept, animals that require 365 day a year looking after but which also had the function of keeping down the grass without which, come summer time all kinds of grasses grow tall and dry and are‘tinder boxes’. With animals the grass must be cut which is an expensive job to do, either paying someone or the days it might take to do. Some people use the cheap way of herbicides but this ly to piss off a ,lot of other folk who pick the wild grasses or are may be moving towards organic production. But a lot of it is not cut nor even poisoned by the many people living in Athens who own land in the countryside but who usually come perhaps for a few days at Easter, then some days in the winter to pick their olives. Experts have also pointed to the reduction in the system of controlled burning which has before taken place in autumn or spring.
Not to be a fire hazard then the land needs work. A recent survey of Greek attitudes to Albanians showed a huge difference from some years ago, far less racist, and indded very positive attitudes especially from old people in the countryside, people normally stereotyped as the most racist/xenophobic. There is a realisation especially amongst older people that the hard physical work required would not happen without Albanians. I do not know the West Peleponnese well enough to know, but it could be said that the Greek countryside would be in permanent crisis without Albanians. (There was a huge Albanian immigration into the Peleponnese in the 13thcentury, so the were always denials in previous racist attitudes.)
These then are the contexts of what happened, and the advent of the bulldozer has also played a role both in a second house or rebuilding on old family land (and here the stonemason skills of many Albanians has lead to a burst of stone house building). The bulldozer has meant that both private and infrastructural development has involved more and more road building. In theory this ought to make it easier for fire crews but also for tourism and the dropped cigarette. But it has also meant a bias in infrastructural spending. Public road construction is aimed at tourism, the growth of which has also played a part in changes in the countryside. This bias has meant the underdevelopment of systems of dealing with the menace of fire which, with savage irony threatens the Greek tourist industry as has been pointed out all summer.
The missing infrastructure is not about the water planes and helicopters which unlike ‘our’ area fire last year (in which 100,000 olive trees lost) when they arrived far too late owing to the fact that many were grounded as well as local politicking. This time they seemed to have been working flat out, but they are not enough, especially when there are high winds, and cannot work at all in dense smoke. From what I know of last year’s experience, crucial developments which would help local people be far more effective, and ‘our’ area fire last year would not have been stopped without tens of local heroisms, have not taken place. This is because of skewed infrastructural priorities and the great difficulties of ‘civil society’ organizing itself in a way that could be actually heard by the state. These developments, given that the electricity is often cut in fires despite the heroism of the DEI (electricity board) workers, should involve strategically placed generators at pumping stations and standpipes to be set along mains water pipes, this water under pressure, could be applied when it is needed.
These then are the ‘physical’ contexts. There is also a socio-political context in which the blaming is taking place. At its broadest it is the ambivalence of Greek society to the state: it is always looked to solve all problems but is largely mistrusted. Nicos Mouzelis and others have written for 40 odd years of the overweight presence of the Greek state, but in many ways it has got worse since the commodity tsunami and attempts to normalize capitalist attitudes new especially to rural Greece. The bias in infrastructural development is a capitalist bias.
The present New Democracy government has made some moves in the direction to facilitate neoliberal capitalism, but the state is still characteristically clientilist. One such move which worsened the bias described above, was to liberalise planning when it came to tourist development, since fire prevention was not mentioned in this new plan. The previous PASOK government under Simitis broke from the party’s nationalism and spoke a pragmatic ‘modernization’ was also unable to make a radical break from this clientilism. When the fires began in June PASOK accused the ND government of incompetence, but there is no evidence that they would have handled things any better. But when it comes to August and the deadliest fires, the accusation had far more force. There had been ample warning from meteorologists that the dangerous climatic conditions would continue through the summer and so make woodlands and the countryside in general, more conducive to fire. It has since emerged – a classic example of clientilism and reminiscent of FEMA’s failures when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans – that the fire service had incompetent political appointees at its head, this on top of bureaucratic confusions of responsibility and competence with the forestry authority.
At the time of the first wave of fires, and especially that on Mount Parnitha, the Athenians whop demonstrated in protest at what had happened were in no doubt as what had caused it and who was to blame, land developers using arson to change the status of forest land. They would then, it was demonstrated, take advantage of the lack of a national land registry (though the E9 official forms of 2006 are aimed at creating one), and useful ambiguities arising from Ottoman Empire period documents, and even the forging of such documents.
In the case of the Attika region around Athens and some of the fires up the West Peleponnesian coast and hinterland were caused for this shitty end. The second round of fires that reached into the edge of Athens from the Ymittos mountain(though close to the centre of the city), and in the northern suburb of Vrillisia seem to be clear cut cases. The claims via ambiguous documents were applied to the elastically defined area of Gerotsakouli. It also emerged that the face of land developers was not all stereotypical. In Vrillisia and neighbouring Pendeli, the claimants to burned forest (2500 hectares) are “building cooperatives” which can be legally formed by as few as ten people. There are many of them and many are formed by powerful professional groups like academics, journalists and bank employees who pressure politicians to declassify the land as forest and include it in local town plans. In 1998 for example the Environment Ministry (then PASOK controlled)incorporated 80 hectares of forest land belonging to a building cooperative into the town plan of the coastal suburb of Nea Makri.
For many years – and this has not just been lone voices – the answer to this threat has been clear an absolute ban, on any building on burned forest or orchard land for 50 or a 100 years. A law on these grounds – cranking up the post-disaster rhetoric is being proposed. Proposals usually arouse citizen scepticism, but there must be citizen pressure to make the proposal into unambiguous law, and then to be its enforcers.
In response to the first round of fires, the ND government tentatively put some blame on developers, but at the same time deputy Labour Minister Gerasimos Yakoumatos clearly implied that the opposition PASOK party was also responsible with the aim of discrediting the government. There followed the usual non-committal retractions. But by the end of August after so much devastation and tragedy, and in the face of its obvious carelessness and incompetence, the government took the default position, that all fires were deliberately caused. It Was Not Their Fault!