Greek Government Criticized For Handling Of Fires In Greece last month, three days of fires devastated an estimated 50,000 acres of forest, and at one point even threatened the suburbs of the capital, Athens. It was a reminder of the country's worst fires, which burned huge areas of the country in 2007. At that time, the Greek government promised action to make sure similar disasters wouldn't happen again.
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Greek Government Criticized For Handling Of Fires

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Greek Government Criticized For Handling Of Fires

Greek Government Criticized For Handling Of Fires

Greek Government Criticized For Handling Of Fires

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In Greece last month, three days of fires devastated an estimated 50,000 acres of forest, and at one point even threatened the suburbs of the capital, Athens. It was a reminder of the country's worst fires, which burned huge areas of the country in 2007. At that time, the Greek government promised action to make sure similar disasters wouldn't happen again.

ARI SHAPIRO, Host:

From Athens, John Psaropoulos reports that firefighting is part of the national political debate in Greece.

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JOHN PSAROPOULOS: At one point during the recent fires, 30-foot flames threatened to engulf Mount Penteli, Athens' easternmost suburb, site of the multimillion dollar homes for much of the capital's elite.

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PSAROPOULOS: A state of emergency was declared, and helicopter tankers mobilized. Circling in the orange, smoke-filled sky like angry wasps, they dropped thousands of gallons of water on the flames, but their efforts failed to stop the fire's advance.

PSAROPOULOS: (Foreign language spoken)

PSAROPOULOS: Under the canopy of pines, ground forces joined the fight. Frantic residents called to the firemen, each trying to save his own house, but the solitary fire truck soon runs out of water.

PSAROPOULOS: (Foreign language spoken)

PSAROPOULOS: It is left to a group of young volunteers to fight the flames with buckets. Outraged residents say the firemen have achieved nothing. Nationally, the fire service deflects such criticism, blaming a combination of warmer, drier climate conditions and rural depopulation for the fires.

PSAROPOULOS: (Foreign language spoken)

PSAROPOULOS: At the fire coordination center in Athens, fire service spokesman Giannis Kapakis says half the country's population now lives in the Athens area, and the countryside is populated by lots of elderly people.

M: (Through translator) Firefighting cannot be the exclusive job of either the fire service or the forest service. Everyone needs to be involved, from the grassroots level up. People still think that the fire service can put out all fires. It cannot.

PSAROPOULOS: But many Greeks think the real problem is the incompetence of local and national government. Spokesman Giorgos Papakonstantinou of the opposition socialist party blames corruption by the ruling conservatives.

M: It means distributing funds based on whether the local authority happens to have a New Democracy mayor. It means completely staffing crucial parts of the administration with people on a clientele list basis and not on the base of whether they can do the job. It comes down to whether you understand the notion of public interest or the notion of very special interests to which you are indebted.

PSAROPOULOS: The ruling New Democracy Party was reelected a few weeks after the 2007 fire. They promised to improve the firefighting. Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who chairs Parliament's Environment Committee, is a member of the ruling party and the son of a former prime minister. He wants to see the creation of a long-promised Environment Ministry with the power to shake up the way Greece deals with the threat of fires.

M: I know that the government has made a commitment for it to happen within the next six months. I think it should have happened already, but better late than never. What we need is to make sure that this ministry is strong and effective, and that means taking policy aspects that are currently embedded in other ministries.

PSAROPOULOS: For NPR News, I'm John Psaropoulos in Athens.

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