ATHENS – After he said there were lapses in responding to a storm of wildfires across Greece – which will be investigated – Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said embattled firefighters will get assistance with more water-dumping aircraft.
He made the announcement during a parliamentary debate over his New Democracy government's response that was ironically criticized by major opposition SYRIZA blamed for 102 deaths in July 23, 2018 wildfires.
Earlier in August, government officials said Greece has 74 firefighting aircraft – 42 planes and 32 helicopters – at its disposal but residents in some spots where the wildfires hit, especially the island of Evia, said they saw few or none helping.
Mitsotakis also announced plans to create a special unit made up of forestry experts and firefighters “that will be able to operate more effectively in forests,” adding that the responsibility for firefighting and prevention was passed on from the forest service to the fire service under the socialist PASOK government in 1998.
“It took many years for the fire service to adapt,” he said. Critics said transferring the duties has hindered fire prevention with forests uncleared and over unlawful dumping that, along with a brutal heat wave that turned woods into tinderboxes were the primary causes of fires.
While he acknowledged that mistakes were made, Mitsotakis largely defended the government’s performance in battling the wildfires, which he linked to severe heat, drought and other climate-related changes, said Kathimerini.
Mitsotakis also said wildfires that ripped through the outskirts of Athens and other parts of Greece showed the need to deal with climate change and global warming that skeptics believe is a hoax, as others do about COVID-19.
Dealing with the crisis “is forcing us to change everything; the way we produce agricultural products, how we move around, how we generate energy and the way we build our homes,” he said, according to the news agency Reuters.
The Greek fires burned more than a quarter million acres of pine forest, with the island of Evia and areas of the Peloponnese, including near the archaeological site of the ancient Olympics, also hit, the report noted.
Mitsotakis told lawmakers an earlier public apology for the disaster was also a call for action to become better at tackling such phenomena.
“We were called to put out 1,279 wildfires … the majority were tackled in the beginning but some got away. Preparedness was not adequate,” he said, unlike SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras who as premier during the 2018 fires said that he accepted only “political responsibility.” Officials during his tenure are being investigated and prosecuted for alleged failures.
Mitsotakis said saving lives took precedence over property and forests. Two people died, a volunteer firefighter hit by a falling police and another who had smoke inhalation but no one burned to death as happened in 2018.
Mitsotakis, who has approved a 500-million-euro ($587 million) aid budget for Evia and the Attica region around Athens, said the protracted heatwave had turned forests into powder kegs, added Reuters.
“It is wrong to say that wildfires are only put out from the air. We cannot have a helicopter above every home,” he said, but pledged to increase aerial firefighting capacities and set up a force able to operate efficiently inside forests.