Greek PM Alexis Tsipras pledges demolition of 3,200 illegal constructions in Attica region in wake of deadly wildfires, Lavrio, Aug. 7, 2018. Marios Lolos/Press Association. All rights reserved.
Like the Grenfell Tower fire that shook London in 2017, the Greek wildfires of 2018 cost the lives of dozens of people. This too is a story of austerity cuts prioritised over human safety. Unlike, the 2017 fire that shook London, the Greek wildfires were fuelled by a property speculation raging out of control.
Dozens of people died in heart-breaking circumstances. In one case 26 people – including children – were trying to head to the sea, escaping the raging fires. They were able to come close to the shore, only to find the only access to the beach, down a cliff, was blocked by the fence of a private property. There shouldn’t be private property there, in a forested area, a few metres from the shore. But firemen found that the 26 perished embracing each other.
The Athens fire made international headlines, as one of the most extreme manifestations of the changing climate and the unusually high temperatures that are observed across the Mediterranean this summer. In Greece the debate has shifted towards the government’s poor management of the crisis. All existing evidence is pointing towards a gross mismanagement of the fire by the Syriza government. Like their conservative predecessors in the New Democracy party who badly managed the wildfires of 2007, which also resulted in several dead, Syriza’s cabinet seems to have wildly underestimated the extent of the catastrophe.
The exact conditions that led to fire consuming a good part of eastern Attica and the deaths of so many have not yet been established. Investigations, however, have established that the fire started as a result of a person starting a fire using a pile of wood and then proceeding to hide his traces. Whether the fire was placed intentionally or not is undoubtedly hard for the authorities to establish, but Greeks have strong reasons to be suspicious.
Fires have been intentionally lit in such forested areas on several past occasions, especially close to Athens. Greece has a painful history of property developers setting fire on purpose to forest areas in order to clear land for building. Whereas Greek law doesn’t permit construction in forested areas, a wildfire can blur the lines between forested and non-forested land. Property speculators can purchase property titles inside forest zones literally for pennies. If they succeed in destroying the evidence of the presence of forest on their property, the price of their formerly valueless land will increase sharply, as they gain permission to build in an area of natural beauty. Between 2009-2013 the Greek Fire Brigade arrested 110 people on these charges of purposefully causing forest fires.
Some forest fires, however, raging out of control, are far more lethal than property speculators might have originally calculated. Individuals who commit arson take every conceivable measure to ensure that the fire is not easily extinguishable. Usually they choose days that are particularly hot, dry and with strong winds. In many cases, multiple fires are set at various vantage points in order to make it as hard as possible for the fire brigade to bring the fire under control. Fires are often in mountainous areas or areas with no road access. It is for that reason that the Greek fire brigade relies so heavily on fire-fighting planes and helicopters to be able to keep fires under control. This equipment is costly, however, and Greece is undergoing the biggest austerity program of its recent history.
There has been speculation about what impact the prolonged programme of austerity that has been implemented in Greece has had on the efficiency of the country’s fire brigade. In early May, just two months before the disaster, the Chiefs of the fire-fighting force warned that only one third of the country’s fire-fighting planes were operational due to austerity cuts in maintenance and investment. Cuts have gone so deep that at the beginning of the summer firemen were still waiting for new boots and helmets. Precise forest maps that could help deter property speculators are, also, long overdue with only one 32% of Greek forests having being mapped. In a case where vested interests and austerity combine, the relevant authorities are struggling to complete the maps, due to the lack of the necessary public service personnel and a series of legal challenges brought by property developers.
At the same time property speculation has been emboldened in austerity Greece. Post-crisis Greek governments are consistently deprived of cash and large debt repayments suck up the country’s liquidity every year. Athens has been desperate for new sources of income. The Greek parliament has voted through a series of laws that allow owners of homes built without permission to get permission post-construction, with the payment of a small fine. From the beginning of the crisis in 2009, one and a half million homeowners have made use of these provisions. For property speculators who have managed to destroy all evidence of the presence of a forest on their property, it’s a golden opportunity to see the value of their assets rising. On the eve of the wild-fire this July, the government was planning to announce a law that would allow even homes that are undeniably built on forested land to acquire permission, post-construction, with the payment of a fine. The Greek government has been able to raise 2.4 billion euros as a result of these measures. On July 20, 2018, the Greek treasury paid 1.8 billion to the European Central Bank, as part of the country’s debt repayment program. That was only one of numerous repayments that Athens had to fulfil in 2018 alone.
The situation on the ground speaks volumes. Greek investigators have only managed to map 32% of the country’s forests and so far they have discovered 75 million square metres of illegal structures within these forests. With record-breaking high temperatures affecting the whole of the Mediterranean, the risks for a new wildfire in Greece are high. With incentives for property speculators being as high as ever and budgets shrunk to a bare minimum, the Greek fire brigade might not have faced its hardest test yet.