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Greek Fire Victims Receive Compensation

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Greece firefighters appeared on Friday to have tamed the last major blaze after a week of forest fires killed more than 60 people and burned a half-million acres of woods, farmland and scrubland.

The cost of the losses is estimated at $1.6 billion dollars. The government is facing widespread criticism, accused of mishandling what European Union officials have called a European disaster.

With elections less than three weeks away, the government is rushing to hand out compensation to fire victims.

A week after the devastating fires broke out, thousands of people turned out to protest in Athens' Syntagma Square.

The protest was not organized by a political party. Word was spread on Internet blogs and mobile text messages. There were no speakers, and nearly everyone was dressed in black to express mourning.

"It is a devastation in our country that never happened before, no invader, no one did it," said Theodore Zimoulidis.

Zimoulidis said his grandparents' village in the Peloponnese has been burned down.

"You know our roots got burned, not only our houses. It is the root of our civilization. Now, it is like we are crippled, no roots," he said.

Nearby, Dafne Ziouni and Maria Papadonion held a poster with the words, "It is parliament that is responsible."

They said they do not know whom to blame. They said they believe that the government and residents share responsibility.

Their mixture of confusion, rage and anguish reflected the mood of the protesters and the country at large.

Over the last week, at least 1,500 homes have been burned to the ground and thousands of people are homeless.

Mountain ecosystems and rural livelihoods have been wiped out. The flames even threatened Olympia, birthplace of the ancient Olympic Games, and destroyed areas on the outskirts of Athens.

One of the areas that has been most devastated is along the slopes of Mount Pendeli, 15 miles north of Athens.

At a fire monitoring station, dispatchers at headquarters checked in over the communication system. Beyond the station, there is a vast expanse of blackened land. Its forest has now been reduced to scorched twigs.

Mount Pendeli has been the victim of devastating fires over the last decade and no fewer than three blazes this summer.

Once a thickly forested mountain, its hills are dotted with comfortable villas.

Harry van Vesendaal has lived near the region for most of his life. He is devastated that the recent blaze wiped out new saplings that had been planted a decade ago.

The land grab for new construction has been fueled by an economic boom and made possible by the lack of a forestry registry, which – together with corrupt zoning officials — makes it easy to change the status of the land.

Greek forestry officials blame arsonists for more than half of the fires that have raged throughout the country this summer, and 79 people have been arrested.

Polls indicate the majority of Greeks believe the fires are part of an organized plan. Conspiracy theories are widespread and include a suspicion that foreign agents want to destabilize the country.

But the fires were also predictable. This summer, Greece has suffered a record three heat waves, high winds and severe drought.

The government has been criticized for negligence because of its understaffed and under equipped firefighting system.

The fires have had an effect on the electorate leading up to the Sept. 16 election. The latest poll showed a large increase in the number of undecided voters. Those polled are disaffected with both the ruling conservative party and the opposition socialists, who were ousted four years ago after governing for a decade.

Political analyst Panos Polyzoidis hopes that Greece's devastating fires could have at least one beneficial effect – to break the grip of a paternalistic political system in which the conservatives and socialists have alternately held power for decades.

"I think this could be the beginning of a grass roots movement that would give a stronger voice to civil society," he said. "It is very difficult for me to gauge what impact this will have in the next few years, but I do really believe that politics is changing in that sense."

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