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Society

Not Mati, But Greece’s Wildfires Response Draws Some Heat Too

ATHENS — Three years after wildfires killed 102 people and nearly wiped out the seaside village of Mati – a handful of officials are being prosecuted for negligence – there is anger about the response to fires from some residents who said it was too slow or not enough.

The fire brigade was dealing with 586 blazes across the country at one point, during a brutal heatwave and as high winds whipped flames and smoke prevented aircraft from aiding.

But there were complaints from some on the island of Evia, Greece's second-largest, about 69 miles northeast of Athens, where almost half of the 1,422 square miles there were covered in flames and smoke.

A ferry boat rescued 1,153 people from the village of Limni, taken away at night with the inferno burning in the background, flames turning the sky orange as the craft left the scene, but some residents wanting to stay to fight the fires themselves.

But there was criticism on other fronts too, including how firefighters dealt with blazes in Varibobi, a neighborhood north of Athens, memories still fresh from how Mati was almost overrrun. 

A resident of the neighborhood, Stelios Kokkinelis, said that emergency services failed to respond to his calls for help so he refuse an order to leave to try to deal with the oncoming flames.

“I hid so they wouldn’t find me. I moved to the other side of my house and started to fight the fire with my own water, otherwise it would have gone,” said the 82-year-old, who built his three-storey house in the wooded area when he returned home after 25 years in South Africa.

Speaking to the news agency Reuters, his daughter Eirini was in tears as she told of how she fled without knowing what had happened to her father or whether the home she and her family shared with him would be destroyed.

“If my father had not stayed, our house would have burned down,” she said. “The fire service was nowhere. Fortunately there were volunteers,” she said. “I feel anger, nothing else,” she added.

But the government defended the response and heroism of firefighters who were working during a heatwave where temperatures were often above 113 degrees for several days and photos showed them asleep on the ground, still dressed in the smoke-stained uniforms they wore to fight the flames, the report added.

Greece was so overwhelmed, despite deploying hundreds of firefighters as well as water-dumping helicopters and aircraft that reinforcements and equipment were brought in from 22 countries.

Some Greeks have asked why local fire services needed help although the government noted the hundreds of simultaneous blazes were too much for the country's services to deal with at once and led to lapses.

TV reports and social media have featured angry commentary about the lack of firefighters to tackle blazes, and how many police officers were involved or not.

“Thanks to all the countries who have given firefighting assistance,” said one commenter on Twitter. “If you ever need cops, let us know”.

A near decade of austerity that came with three international bailouts of 326 billion euros ($381.86 billion) has still left the firefighting and public safety forces understaffed. 

Dimitris Stathopoulos, head of Greece’s firefighters federation, told the news agency that 5,000 firefighters needed to be hired immediately.

“We are constantly on alert,” Stathopoulos said. “In March, we had 10 days of floods, then snow. In Varybobi and in Evia, we’re going to be there for 20 days with 500 firefighters because these are dangerous times.”

Temperatures were so high last week in the early stages of the Varybobi fire, that water dropped by fire-fighting aircraft evaporated before reaching the flames, he added, making that effort useless.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said there would be a time for “criticism and self-criticism” over the way authorities responded to the fires, which were blamed on a combination of the heat wave creating tinder box conditions, uncleared brush in woods, arson, and unlawful dumping.

In June, the Civil Protection Ministry announced a 1.7 billion-euro ($1.99 billion) fire protection plan, funded mostly by the European Investment Bank and European Union, including replacing ageing Canadair fire-fighting aircraft and hiring more fighters.

Deputy Prime Minister Akis Skertsos posted figures showing Greece well ahead of other Mediterranean countries for the number of water-bombing aircraft, although there was a report not all those available from the military were used.

He said spending on civil protection measures had increased 56 percent in the past three years, with permanent and seasonal firefighter numbers up 16 percent to 14,736. Greece now had 74 firefighting aircraft now compared with 51 in 2018, when the wildfires were more deadly.

“The government should resign as soon as possible. They did absolutely nothing, zero,” said Makis Ladogiannakis, a 77-year-old resident of Pefki, in northern Evia, where a ferry waited to evacuate more people by sea.

“Everyone is desperate. Everyone is disappointed,” he said, although there was no report on how those who were rescued felt.

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