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Arson as development strategy? Greeks are forced to look inward

Times Staff Writer

If history is any guide, vast areas blackened in Greece’s deadly wildfires eventually will sprout anew -- with luxury villas, fancy hotels and expensive vacation homes.

The fires, which killed at least 64 people across the country and now threaten to topple the government, have forced Greeks to ask painful questions about what caused the blazes and how they were able to spread such destruction.

Among the most insidious triggers, according to officials and environmentalists, is a practice by unscrupulous builders of deliberately setting fire to forests to render the land available for development.

Greece is the only country in the European Union that does not have a forest registry. Once a forest burns down, the legal status of the land also goes up in smoke. Absent records, designating the land for reforestation is too difficult, and it is often up for grabs. In some cases, developers have moved in with the help of corrupt officials.

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“Historically, this is a very big problem,” said Demetres Karavellas, chief executive of the Greek branch of the World Wildlife Fund. “There is no doubt that at least some of the fires this week were due to arson linked to property development.”

The pattern is especially damaging here on Mt. Penteli, about 13 miles north of Athens, once a thickly forested hill and now an overbuilt affluent suburban enclave where four fires in the last decade have been blamed on arsonists.

Flames that stalked the mountain late last week topped the ridge and marched down through the northern edge of the community, incinerating homes and forcing hundreds of well-to-do Greeks to flee.

Resident George Papageorgiou, a retired air force officer surveying the damage Wednesday, said he was convinced that this fire, like previous ones, could be linked to a scheme to grab the land.

“Houses here are very expensive,” he said, noting that he has watched dozens of homes spring up around him, some on land cleared by fire.

His property was spared this time, thanks to the quick work of volunteer firefighters, he said. But a block away the scene was different: The gutted hulks of million-dollar homes loomed on a hillside scarred with spindly burned tree trunks the color of chocolate in a sea of ash. A single swing set of red and royal blue could be seen standing amid the wasteland.

It was unclear Wednesday how many of the hundreds of fires that have swept Greece over six days were caused by deliberate action and how many were the result of negligence, combined with a severe drought, an enduring heat wave and high winds.

Officials say that at least half a million acres have been charred by the fires, which razed entire villages, consumed farmlands, killed livestock and deer and singed priceless antiquities. Some of the wildfires raged through beachfront olive groves and pine stands on the Peloponnese peninsula and other valuable property, but others were on land that is not coveted by developers.

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What is clear is that a terrible fire season was easily predictable, and the government is coming under searing criticism that it failed to take adequate precautions and to effectively fight the disaster.

In scores of villages, residents had to desperately fight fires themselves when no help arrived. Many of those who died were trapped in their cars or fields as they tried to flee. The state appeared to be a shambles: Greeks had to turn to television, phoning in to recount their harrowing ordeal and plead for rescue while TV commentators gave advice on how to survive.

The conservative government of Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis was quick to blame arsonists -- in part, commentators say, to deflect blame from its own missteps. Among many mistakes, some observers say, was putting responsibility for the overall crisis in the hands of a woefully inexperienced official.

Greece is to hold a national election Sept. 16, and Karamanlis and his New Democracy Party have begun to slip in polls in which they had been leading. Many pollsters say the fire debacle could cost Karamanlis the election, and his opposition is eager to exploit the public anger.

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“The state could not protect lives,” Socialist party leader George Papandreou said. “We are humiliated by the inability of the government to save the lives of our fellow citizens.”

However, the public outrage being directed at the government could also tarnish the opposition, pollsters said. The Panhellenic Socialist Movement, or PASOK, ruled for more than a decade until 2004 and could be blamed for many of the land-abuse problems that exacerbated the fires.

The government was already on notice after wildfires in June that scorched about 10% of the precious Parnitha National Park, one of the last patches of virgin forest in this part of the world. Many here now see that as an omen, a moment when the government apparently allowed the fires to rage for a couple of days before acting.

“I was unlucky,” said Xronos Tassiopoulos, who abandoned his small kiosk in the Parnitha park when the fires approached. Actually, he was lucky, because the flames stopped short of the business. He wondered Wednesday what would happen to the land; Athens’ main gambling casino sits atop the mountain, but officials say the forest will remain a forest.

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As Tassiopoulos spoke, a family of deer, displaced by the fire, nudged its way close to a group of people who could offer apples and other nourishment.

In the soul-searching that the disaster has rekindled, Greeks are being urged to take responsibility, become more active in protecting the environment and overcome their traditional apathy.

“There is a sense that people don’t trust the state anymore,” said Thanos Dokos of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, “but also that even a well-organized state cannot deal with disasters like severe climate change without the participation of its citizens.”

Greeks who had doubts about their country’s organizational skills were swayed by the 2004 Summer Olympic Games, which came off with barely a hitch. Athens was praised for its handling of the huge event, and Greeks experienced a boost in their pride and self-confidence.

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But the bungling of the fire response could make many feel they are returning “back to the bad old days” of chaotic inefficiency, Dokos said.

In fairness, the breadth and speed of the inferno would have been difficult for even the most efficient public administration. The European Space Agency said Wednesday that Greece suffered more fires in August than the rest of Europe had experienced in a decade. The conflagration hit and advanced with a fickle and random brutality that might have defied the best of plans.

For example, the iconic symbol of the disaster has been 40-year-old Athanassia Paraskevopoulou, who was found dead, clutching three of her children. They died fleeing a fire; the house they fled, it turned out, emerged unscathed.

Wrath at the government, meanwhile, spilled into Athens streets Wednesday for the second time in less than a week. Thousands of demonstrators, dressed in black for mourning, gathered outside the parliament building under the slogan “They Let Greece Burn.”

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“A huge part of Greece burned down because of indifference,” said Panagiotis Kokaliaris, a 53-year-old biker in spandex who joined the rally with other cyclists.

Ilia Iatrou, 37, bounced her8-month-old son on her hip and said that all Greeks, from the government to ordinary citizens, were to blame for the catastrophe. “We allowed the situation for decades, and now we are paying the price,” she said.

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wilkinson@latimes.com

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