Greek Fires Start to Subside

ATHENS, Greece, August 29, 2007 (ENS) - Firefighters are beginning to gain ground against the worst forest fires to strike Greece in more than a century, but only after the blazes claimed 64 lives and charred much of Ilia prefecture on the Peloponnese peninsula in southern Greece.

The country remains in the state of emergency and suspicion is rife that arsonists are to blame for more than half of the wildfires. To date, seven people have been arrested and charged with arson, including one person who is accused of setting fires at Zacharo, a village in Ilia where 37 people perished last week trying to escape the flames.

Two new wildfires broke out in northwest Ioannina prefecture today, and some large fires are still burning, but many others have been doused by firefighters and aircraft from across Europe. Greek firefighters are getting reinforcements of about 120 men from Cyprus, France and Israel.

Wednesday, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis expressed the gratitude of all Greeks to the firefighters and called them heroes.

Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis promises cash to fire victims. (Photo courtesy Office of the Prime Minister)
Quick cash was made available to anyone who declared they had been harmed by the fire by Karamanlis' conservative government concerned about retaining power in elections slated for September 16.

The prime minister said emergency allocations of 3,000 euros (US$4,096) per affected household were to be made "without delay," upon only "a simple solemn statement of the beneficiary, with only one signature."

Greeks have suffered enough, he said, without being made to suffer more by bureaucratic processes.

Banks are offering debt forgiveness for those who have lost close relatives or suffered major losses of property. Credit card and loan payments are being deferred for borrowers in fire-ravaged areas.

Main opposition leader George Papandreou, visited Zacharo on Saturday, but refrained from criticizing the government. His party, the Panhellenic Socialist Movement, suspended its weekend campaigning and pledged 30 percent of the party's election funds to people hurt by the wildfires in the Peloponnese.

Wildfires have plagued Greece since July, but since Thursday at least 190 fires broke out across southern Greece, and also near Athens, Sparta and other cities. Fire singed the edges of ancient Olympia, site of the first Olympic games, but was stopped before the ancient monuments were destroyed.

Firefighters are still battling blazes across southern Greece and on Evia island, off eastern continental Greece, and fire officials fear the rekindling of wildfires where they already have been doused.

Some villages on the Peloponnese peninsula are still being evacuated today. Homes in more than 100 villages were destroyed and many families lost livestock and olive trees. Damages are estimated in the billions of euros.

Silent demonstrators outside the Greek Parliament building in Athens. August 29, 2007 (Photo by Constantin)
In Athens, thousands of people gathered outside the parliament buildings in protest of the government's slow and inadequate response to the fires. They expressed resentment at the "false statements of Karamanlis" from this past March that supposedly Greece was ready to face fires expected in the summer, while the government allocated only "minimal means" to fight them.

Weather conditions, including record summer temperatures and hot dry winds, have made Greece and southern Italy a tinderbox, said the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

Greece has experienced more wildfire activity this August than other European countries have over the last decade, according to data from sensors aboard European Space Agency satellites.

Working like thermometers in the sky, the sensors measure thermal infrared radiation to take the temperature of Earth's land surfaces. Data from July 1996 to August 28, 2007 were used to plot the number of fires occurring monthly. Results show Greece has had four times the number of fires this August as were burning in August 1998.

Burned over land at Zacharo, where 37 people died trying to flee last week. (Photo credit unknown)
The data from these sensors is compiled to create the ATSR World Fire Atlas, which provides data to online users approximately six hours after acquisition. All available satellite passes are processed for the atlas.

In addition to maps, the time, date, longitude and latitude of the hot spots are provided. The data are meant to be used for research and especially for fire prevention and management.

But a report today in the "Economist" says Greek forestry officials were hampered by "lack of access to satellite pictures that could have enabled fire-fighters to find and douse blazes before they caused serious damage."

In 2000, the European Space Agency and the French space agency formed the International Charter Space and Major Disasters, which rapidly creates tasks for earth observation satellites and delivers the resulting spacemaps to emergency response and civil protection authorities anywhere in the world.

Finally today, the Hellenic national mapping and survey agency, part of the Ministry of Environment, Physical Planning and Public Works, requested spacemaps of the Greek fires from the International Charter.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.