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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

As fires endanger the ‘lungs’ of Athens, Greek anger rises

Flames rising above Mount Parnitha in Athens early Thursday morning.

By Niki Kitsantonis

Even as Greek authorities battled scores of wildfires, stretching from north to south on the mainland, the fires encroaching on a treasured national park north of Athens on Thursday provoked special anger.

Mount Parnitha, a protected wildlife area widely known as the “lungs” of Athens, is normally a respite for city dwellers, especially as the heat of Greek summers has tipped to dangerous extremes.

But Thursday, with the air acrid with the smell of burned wood, residents and conservationists alike lamented the potential loss of one of the few green spaces left near the capital. They accused authorities of failing to protect a precious forestland that is home to more than 1,000 species of plants and animals, including red deer and wolves.

“No other European capital has been blessed with such a hot spot of biodiversity literally at its doorstep,” said Demetre Karavellas, director of World Wildlife Fund Greece, adding that the extent of the damage was still unclear as fires continued to rage. “It’s a crying shame.”

Officials said they were doing all they could with stretched resources and accused arsonists of fueling some of the blazes. Some have been set deliberately in the past to make way for the illegal construction of homes.

Despite occasional crackdowns, with token demolitions after major disasters, the unapproved homes have subsequently been approved under amnesties by successive governments — which critics say encourages the practice.

“It’s unacceptable. It’s a crime,” said Smaragda Bareli, a retiree drinking coffee with a friend in central Athens. “Our Parnitha, how could this be happening again?” she asked, alluding to fires that ravaged the mountain in 2007. “Where will we go to breathe?”

For now, the fires on Parnitha have been contained close to its borders and prevented from spreading deep into the woodland, the Hellenic Fire Service said. But as residents of nearby villages saw their homes burn, the threat to the area stoked angry debate on social media, where people deplored the destruction of yet more pristine woodland. Far-leftist groups called for protest rallies Thursday evening, one under the slogan “We can’t breathe,” with another rally planned for Friday.

On the streets of Athens, city dwellers were fed up.

“Every year, they say the same thing: ‘We’re doing what we can; it’s climate change,’” said Haris Karathomas, 47, a physical therapist who used to go hiking in Mount Parnitha. “I can’t go anymore. I can’t bear to see the burned trees, the houses, the animals wandering through the ashes.”

Greek authorities insisted that they had done everything possible to protect the forest and the residential areas around it. But, they said, the combination of tinder-dry conditions — stoked by back-to-back heat waves — and gale-force winds had made their job particularly difficult.

The scope of the fires in Greece is the worst ever recorded, Greece’s civil protection minister, Vassilis Kikilias, said Wednesday. And Thursday, Janez Lenarcic, the crisis management commissioner of the European Union, which has sent firefighters and aircraft to help Greece, said they were “the largest wildfires on record the EU has faced.”

After having partly contained the Parnitha fire Wednesday evening, firefighters resumed efforts Thursday to prevent blazes on Mount Parnitha’s southern slope from spreading deeper into the national park and to keep them from residential areas, Greece’s fire service spokesperson, Yiannis Artopios, told Greek television.

Evacuation orders for four villages were issued overnight, he said Thursday, attributing the rekindling of the blaze to a phenomenon called the “chimney effect.”

“It was like an explosion of fire in a ravine,” he said, adding that the blast sent out “millions of burning pieces” into the area that were whipped farther afield by strong winds.

North of Mount Parnitha, in the area of Avlonas, 12 separate fires had erupted in just the last 24 hours, he said. Those were more suspicious, officials said.

Kikilias blamed “lowlife arsonists” for nine fires in the Avlonas area Thursday morning alone. Four suspects were detained in the area, state television reported.

Avraam Savvas, whose family home at the foot of Mount Parnitha was devoured by flames Wednesday, denounced authorities’ response.

“Forty years of work became ash in 15 minutes,” he told Greek television Wednesday evening, adding that he had no hopes that compensation would restore his losses. “They’ll throw us a crust, and they’ll say, ‘That’s it, whether you like it or not,’” he said.

Elsewhere Thursday, several hundred firefighters tackled another major blaze, in Evros, in northern Greece. But officials insisted the response to the fire in Athens had been swift.

One charred body was discovered late Thursday in Evros near the village of Lefkimmi, a Greek official with direct knowledge of the situation said. Local police and fire departments did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The fires that have been ravaging the region for six days running were advancing throughout Thursday in the area where the body was discovered. On Tuesday 18 bodies were found nearby, among them two children. Authorities believe the dead were probably migrants, as the area is near the border with Turkey and no locals have been reported missing.

Kikilias, the civil protection minister, said Wednesday at a news conference that water-dropping aircraft had been sent to Mount Parnitha within four or five minutes of the blaze’s breaking out Tuesday.

Still, the damage wreaked by this month’s fires on Parnitha was even worse than that in 2007, according to the Greek chapter of the World Wildlife Fund, which said nearly 6,000 hectares — almost 15,000 acres — was razed in one day, compared with 5,600 hectares in the entire previous fire.

The impact of the Parnitha fires on Athens residents and tourists already struggling through consecutive heat waves this summer was also raising concerns.

Medics and other experts took to Greek television Thursday to advise older Athenians or others who might be vulnerable to wear face masks outside, as the increased atmospheric pollution could cause breathing or heart problems.

Some Athenians saw the drama unfolding on Mount Parnitha as the prelude of a dystopia with ever fewer forests and less fresh air. “Parnitha is our heart; it’s our lungs,” said Karathomas, the therapist. “If we lose it, that’s it. It’s us and the concrete.”

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