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Greek Fires Under Control, But Controversy Over Government Handling Heats Up


Fire officials in Greece say wildfires that have swept through southern Greece over the past week have been brought under control. The fires have claimed at least 64 lives and burned numerous villages and thousands of hectares of forest. Police have charged six people with deliberately setting fires, but environmentalists say the state is also to blame. Nina-Maria Potts reports.

First the inferno, now public outrage burns at the government's handling of the disaster.

Forest experts say not putting out the fires fast enough is not the real crime. They instead blame a 1998 decision to transfer full responsibility for wildfires from the forestry department to the fire department.

A former government adviser and forest fire expert, Gavril Xanthopoulos says state policies and ignorance led to this summer's tragedy. "They started evacuating villages instead of organizing people to defend villages, rather than trying to clear up the areas close to the villages while they had time, where it was prescribed those villages would burn in two hours, or in five hours."

The government has not directly addressed that charge, but is promising immediate compensation to the victims.

Forestry expert’s say Mediterranean forests are meant to burn - that is why fire prevention, not fire suppression is the answer.

Clearing logs and branches - natural fuel for fast moving fires - would create firebreaks and fire zones around villages.

Environmentalists say ruthless property developers have in the past exploited weak environmental protection laws, by starting forest fires for their own benefit.

And the environmental cost of the fires is not yet known.

Problems include the potential influx of thousands of environmental refugees to overpopulated cities.

In Athens, environmental activists say hot forest fire winds may even have interfered with the city's natural air conditioning system of cool air funneled by the surrounding mountains.

The director of Greenpeace Greece, Nikos Charalambides says successive governments are to blame. "That's why there is a huge amount of anger among the public and that's something the political parties face following the polls. It's there. They know there's huge anger- they know they have to change their policies."

For now, the fires are diminishing, but environmentalists say the future looks bleak, unless the political will can be found to invest not only in firefighting equipment but in preventing fires from getting started.

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