ATHENS – Prime Minister and Radical Left SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras, under attack for the uncoordinated response to the July 23 wildfires that killed at least 91 people, is purging those responsible, sacking the Fire Chief and Police Chief after Citizens Protection Minister Nikos Toskas quit.
The new fire service chief is Vasileios Matthaipoulos while the new police chief is Aristides Antrikopoulos, Tsipras’ office office announced following a session of KYSEA, the country’s decision-making body on defense issues. Both men are ranked Lt. General.
The General secretary for Civil Protection, Yiannis Kapakis, is also expected to be sacked, Kathinerini said, with Tsipras – who at first declined to fire anyone as his government circled the wagons and said it was blameless – getting rid of officials.
Not affected is Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, leader of the pro-austerity, marginal, jingoistic Independent Greeks (ANEL) who are junior coalition partners in the government, even though he failed to dispatch enough ships to pick up people who died in the sea, treading water for hours after fleeing the fire in the seaside village of Mati, waiting for help that never came.
The fired Police Chief Constantine Tsouvalas, had been in the post since February 2016. Sotiris Terzoudis had been head of the Hellenic Fire Service since February of this year.
Interior Minister Panos Skourletis took over Toskas’ duties overseeing Greece’s security services.
The death toll from rose with the weekend deaths of a 55-year-old woman, an 85-year-old man and a 95-year-old woman, all with extensive burns. Authorities said 36 people, including one minor, remained hospitalized, six of them in critical condition.
In a tweet, Tsipras thanked Toskas for his “courage” in stepping down. “I warmly thank (him) for the honesty and dedication he displayed during the discharge of his duties,” Tsipras added.
Toskas, in the aftermath, said there were “no operational failures,” despite criticism there were no disaster or evacuation plans and the response was discombobulated.
Critics focused on the absence of any official evacuation effort for residents before the flames reached Mati, on police allegedly allowing traffic diversions that sent motorists into deadly fire zone, and on an allegedly delayed announcement of the first deaths.
Toskas also initially suggested that arsonists could be to blame for the fire, although later indications suggested negligence by somebody trying to burn garden waste.
The government said authorities will start demolishing dozens of illegal fences and other structures in the wider Athens region next week in a crackdown on structures built without permits.
Greek officials are claiming that such structures were a major contributing factor to the wildfire’s high death toll.
Environment Minister Giorgos Stathakis told Greek radio channel 24/7 that 61 structures, mainly fencing, will be removed at sites on beaches, streams and areas earmarked for reforestation in several regions of Attica.
The Mati blaze was the deadliest in decades, in a hot, dry country where summer wildfires are a constant major hazard.
Hundreds of people fled to beaches, but even there the flames and choking smoke from the wildfire forced many to swim out to sea despite gale-force winds. Many survivors spent hours in the water until they were rescued by the Coast Guard, fishing boats and other boats. Several drowned.
Coroner Ilias Bogiokas said the wildfire was so hot that “there was almost nothing left” of many of the bodies.
“For the bodies to be in this state, with full carbonization and with parts often turned to ashes … the temperatures must have been very high in a very short period of time,” he told The Associated Press. “Whatever happened, happened in minutes.”
Coroners announced they had performed autopsies on the remains of 86 people. On July 30, coast guard divers recovered the body of a man from the sea off the coast of the decimated resort area.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)