Fires draw Greek street protest

Hundreds protest in Athens as foreign firefighters fly in to help stricken Greeks.

Fires burn near Olympia
The archaeological site of Olympia was saved from the forest fires but nearby villages were destroyed [AFP]

Hundreds of villages have been destroyed as the forest fires broke out from the southern tip of the Peloponnese peninsula to the northern town of Ioannina.
More than 800 Greek firefighters and a similar number of soldiers have been battling the flames in the Peloponnese.

They were assisted by a growing international effort, with 20 aircraft and 19 helicopters dropping water on the flames.

Mixed results
Reporting from Greece, Al Jazeera’s correspondent Laurence Lee said Monday was a day of mixed fortunes.

“I am very angry. The government was totally unable to deal with this situation”

Gerassimos Kaproulias, schoolteacher

But the better news, he said, “is that outside help here, from the centre in Athens and from the European Union and elsewhere, has eventually started to arrive and is making a difference”.

He said: “In the village of Grillos, a huge fire was raging. There came no fewer than six planes who dropped tonne after tonne of seawater all over these fires, doused them immediately and they managed to reopen the road.
“The conditions for the aircraft are very, very difficult, lots of smoke in the air, very poor visibility and very dangerous too for the pilots because they have to fly so low over the trees.
“But the good part is that, even though it is late, eventually reinforcements have now arrived here.”
He said that in one village, residents had refused to board a government helicopter sent to evacuate them. They argued that the transport was a “stunt” and that they wanted to stay back to save their village as no one else would.

Olympia saved

On Sunday, firefighters saved the ancient archaeological site of Olympia, the birthplace of the Olympic Games, from the fire.

Flames up to 100m high had reached the 2,800-year-old ruins, burning trees and shrubs just a few metres from its walls.
But many Greeks questioned the government’s priorities, saying the fight was won at the expense of the villages.

Earlier, Lee, reporting from near Olympia, said the Greek government had been forced to make some very hard choices during the past four days.

He said: “The scale of the crisis is so great, they don’t have the resources to try to do everything at the same time, so they have to make those hard choices.”

Authorities believe that many fires were started deliberately, and on Sunday seven people were charged with arson.

Dimitris Papagelopoulos, an anti-terrorism prosecutor, said he was opening a preliminary investigation into the cause of the blazes and the public order ministry announced rewards of up to $1.36m for information leading to the arrest of arsonists.

Many local mayors have accused rogue land developers of setting fires to make way for construction on virgin forest and farm land.

The government has insisted that the trees will be re-planted. However, the environmental group Greenpeace said on Monday that weak zoning laws, careless farmers and smouldering garbage dumps are the main reasons for the fires.
‘Biggest arsonist’
“There are several well-known ‘arsonists’ in Greece – garbage dumps [burning spontaneously], farmers burning brush, animal farmers burning land to sprout fresh grass for grazing,” Nikos Charalambides, director of Greenpeace in Greece, said.
“But the biggest arsonist is the state, which has not clarified the use of land, leaving suburban forests vulnerable to rogue developers.
“The lack of a national land registry and national zoning laws leave room for doubt about the characterisation of land, whether it is forest or not.”

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies