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Exempting Homes Near Forests, Greece Girds for New Fiery Summer

ATHENS – Greece is preparing for another hot summer – record heat has already struck – and the likelihood of more fires that in 2023 proved deadly, but the government has pulled back fire prevention measures for homes in or near forests.

“A tough summer lies ahead, but we are better prepared,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said during the inauguration of a Civil Protection Operational Center in central Greece briefing reporters on measures to deal with fires and prevent them.

He said a year earlier that climate change was a driving force in more fires that spread rapidly, killing 20 people, destroying homes and forest and olive trees and burning 296,526 acres, including parts of the agricultural heartland of Thessaly.

This year, authorities are preparing to battle the blazes with “more manpower than ever,” mobilizing approximately 18,000 firefighters, including a specially trained unit after calling on help from other European Union countries in 2023.

The government also invested more than 2 billion euros ($2.17 billion) in new equipment, as well as seven water-dropping aircraft and 1,100 fire engines, Climate Crisis and Civil Protection Minister Vassilis Kikilias said, reported China’s state Xinhua news agency.

https://english.news.cn/20240605/18c8e9c44b1f4c79a3d1de166ad0a05a/c.html

Greece has only 88 aircraft currently in operation and won’t expect more to be delivered until 2025 although Mitsotakis earlier admitted the government wasn’t fully ready to deal with the scope of fires that plague Greece, many set by arsonists.

Another more than 200 million euros ($217.44 million) will be used to create firebreak zones in forested areas and around settlements inside or near forests that were supposed to have been cleared by municipalities, who got money to do it.

The failure not to remove dead wood and debris led the government earlier to issue measures for homeowners in and around forests to do so and take pre-emptive measures but those were withdrawn on the eve of European Parliament elections.

Environment and Energy Minister Theodoros Skylakakis told reporters that since May 1, seen as the start of the wildfire season, that crews have begun clearing hundreds of thousands of acres of forests to contain potential fires.

He said that would go on for another month. “(Our goal) is to increase the resilience of our defense against the very large wildfires like the ones we experienced last year and in previous years. Unfortunately (there is) a very high possibility that we will witness (such fires) in coming years,” he said.

“This summer will be extremely difficult. And this is not a wild guess, since we have just been through the warmest winter and the warmest spring of the last many decades,” the minister added.

It won’t be a requirement but homeowners of properties within or at 300 meters (984 feet) from forests were asked to cut down trees and remove piles of firewood and gas tanks from their yards to help reduce fire risk and facilitate efforts to contain the spread of flames, Skylakakis said.

For years, summer fires have consumed large swathes of Greece, many believed deliberately set to clear land for development, with no ban on building on burned land and Greece giving amnesty for unlawful structures in those areas.

But negligent arson has been upgraded from a misdemeanor to a felony since the July 23, 2018 wildfires that were started accidentally by an elderly man burning brush, which spread and killed 104 people.

But he and five former fire officials were spared any jail time after being convicted for their roles in the fire, and 16 others were acquitted, leading to outrage from families of the victims and some who were burned horribly in the conflagration.

Since Jan. 1, he said that more than 300 people were arrested for negligent arson, and perpetrators face up to 10 years in prison and fines of up to 200,000 euros ($217,441,) but no report of any being prosecuted, which can take years.

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