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Greek firefighters join public outcry at ‘woeful’ response to lethal wildfires

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© AFP/Getty Images Firefighters and volunteers tackle the wildfire at the village of Kineta, near Athens on 24 July.

By Helena Smith in Athens, The Guardian

Fury over the Greek government’s handling of forest fires that saw scores of people burn to death barely 15 miles from Athens has escalated.

As the death toll rose to 88, firefighters joined the public outcry with an excoriating indictment of the rescue operation. Authorities had not only been woefully ill prepared to deal with the wind-driven wildfire, but had failed to apologise for the tragedy, said Dimitris Stathopoulos, who heads the 12,500-strong Federation of Firefighters. “The government might be saying there were no grave operational mistakes, but what it isn’t saying is that there were thousands of small mistakes,” he told the Observer. “All those mistakes make the big mistake and that is why we had such an unprecedented number of deaths.”

[post_ads]The fire brigade recommended the evacuation of the area but had not been listened to, he said. Moreover, the meteorological service had failed to predict winds of up to 124km/h. This resulted in firefighting aircraft being grounded. “They simply couldn’t take off in such winds. If the meteorological service had raised the danger level and issued a warning, the planes could have gone to a different airport,” he insisted. “And because they weren’t foreseen our resources were scattered.”

The leftist-led government has been left reeling from the disaster.In what has become one of the worst natural disasters in living memory, many victims were children and rescue crews are still combing the land and sea for missing people.

From the outset authorities appear to have underestimated the scale and speed of the fires along the Attica coast. When the blazes had already obliterated the seaside resort of Mati, where the death toll was highest, prime minister Alexis Tsipras appeared ill-informed of the magnitude of the calamity, telling Greeks after a meeting at the emergency services operational command centre: “Our fellow citizens are in danger … some are trapped on the beaches. We should all be vigilant. This is an extremely difficult situation for Attica and the country.”

On Friday assumed political responsibility for the tragedy but stopped short of satisfying calls for the resignation of Nikos Toskas, the civil protection minister and other officials. Addressing his cabinet he repeated Toskas’s assertion that evidence seemed to point to arson. But on Saturday the fire service’s arson crime unit rejected that theory, claiming it had very likely been sparked by someone burning wood in the area of Daou Penteli, where the wildfire is now known to have started. The Greek daily Kathimerini said the culprit’s identity was already known.

“Greek governments have traditionally found it convenient to blame profiteers, arsonists, terrorists, and even foreign agents,” Tsipras’s former finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, averred. “With such incendiary claims … officials avoid having to admit their lack of preparedness and their failure to adopt and enforce appropriate laws and safety regulations.”
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As the fallout intensified, two deputy mayors in Marathon, the area worst hit by the fires, resigned, saying their conscience did not allow them to remain in their posts.

Echoing Varoufakis’s argument that austerity inflicted on Greece had also played a role in the inability of authorities to respond effectively to the disaster, Stathopoulos admitted that budget cuts had rendered at least 30% of the service’s fire engines useless. The debt-stricken country has applied the tough measures in return for bailout loans to keep bankruptcy at bay.

“About 15% of our fleet of 1,750 trucks are off the roads because they have chronic problems and are old,” he said. “Another 15% are in need of spare parts which we can’t afford. As firefighters we take an oath to protect people and their properties. We know when to recommend that areas be evacuated, but for some reason our recommendation was not heard. This is a huge tragedy for our country and apologies are owed.”

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World - U.S. Daily News: Greek firefighters join public outcry at ‘woeful’ response to lethal wildfires
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