What’s to blame for Greece’s deadly fires?

July 31, 2018

Devastating wildfires struck the Greek region of Attica, surrounding the capital of Athens, earlier this month, wreaking a terrible toll in human lives and ecological destruction. As with other tragedies around the world, this deadly disaster is only partially “natural.” In Greece, the twisted priorities of a capitalist system that puts profit before human need are compounded by the “Memorandums” — a program of drastic austerity policies demanded by Europe’s bankers and bureaucrats in return for financial help during the debt crisis. Successive Greek governments have accepted the Memorandum regime, including the current government led by SYRIZA, which came to power promising to defy the austerity blackmailers, but which capitulated instead.

Katerina Giannoulia and Nicolas Kolytas, members of Internationalist Workers Left (DEA) in Greece, describe what the fires have exposed about a twisted system.

THE SAME arguments and explanations are made every summer. Wildfires in Greece are a chronic plague in the summer months, carrying their usual tragic consequences, only they are on a greater scale this year. The stark truth is that this is a human tragedy and an immeasurable ecological disaster.

The fires in Eastern Attica have been very widespread. According to the official count as this article was being written, there were 81 dead, at least 60 injured and an unknown number of missing persons.

The whole of Attica was placed under a state of emergency; more than 1,500 homes were destroyed by fire; dozens of people were trapped and killed; entire areas were threatened with destruction; children’s camps were evacuated; and electrical power was disrupted in much of Attica. Ash and smoke in the air in the Attica Basin made it hard to breath, and the winds whipped up by the fires reached well over 40 miles per hour.

All this began in on Monday, July 23, which was predicted by meteorologists to be one of the hottest days of the summer. Anyone could have guessed that this would be a day when wildfires were an extreme risk.

Wildfires tear through the outskirts of Athens
Wildfires tear through the outskirts of Athens

The script for responding to this tragedy was known in advance. The Greek government raises suspicions about arson, blaming underground circles opposed to the state. The main opposition complains through its friendly media about the lack of preparedness of the state. Journalists, depending on who their boss is, either exaggerate the heroic efforts of state workers or sow panic about the scale of the disaster.

This is the pattern followed every year, and the cynical aim is to profit politically from the fires’ destruction of homes, trees and land, animals and even people. It is a poorly performed farce featuring the same disgraced actors, whether they be green (the center-left PASOK party), blue (the center-right New Democracy) or pink (SYRIZA, the main party in power in the Greek government).

THE RESPONSIBILITY for what happened can be clearly established.

It belongs to all the parties that have voted together in favor of the Memorandums; all the political representatives of the speculators and real estate developers who seek profits after the land is burned; all the politicians who imposed austerity on the Fire Service, leaving it without adequate equipment even while exorbitant amounts are spent on the arms sector.

The SYRIZA-ANEL government has once again left the people helpless in face of the flames.

According to the latest report of the NATO military alliance, Greece is second among member nations only to the U.S. the proportion of gross domestic product spent on the military: 2.36 percent.

The government’s arms expenditures totaled 4.2 billion (!) euros, while it spent only $11 million to maintain its fleet of 12 Canadair aircraft used for fighting fire. This is why it was once again necessary for the government to ask for firefighting assistance from other countries.

We live in a developed capitalist country of the “advanced” West and an equal partner in the European Union and NATO, yet the Greek state stands helpless in the face of the natural phenomena of rain, wind and fire, as if this was the result of divine wrath.

We live in a country where an hour-long flight of an F-16 or Mirage 2000-5 warplane costs between 10,000 and 15,000 euros, and the cost of buying just one of these aircraft is between 20 and 30 million euros, not to mention the expenses for maintenance and modernization, plus associated weapons systems.

We live in a country where the regional authorities for Attica allocate about 27 million euros from the budget for stadiums used by professional football clubs.

We live in a country where, according to a recent statement of the Greek maritime workers’ union, “the government has subjected the critical area of fire protection to the austerity policies of the Memorandums, while neglecting the need for the effective protection of the people.

IT SHOULD be noted that forest fires are a natural means of renewal, and aren’t exclusively the result of arson, obscure plans to attack the government or the sinister “enemy” of wind. Wildfires are something to be expected, even more so as a result of climate change that is underway — though that is disputed by Prime Minister Tsipras’ “good friend,” Mr. Trump.

Yannis Stamoulis, chairperson of the fire brigade officers’ union, outlined all the problems facing the department and asked for action to be taken before the summer.

“We must prepare for a difficult summer, taking into account the fact that climate change is now causing major wildfires all over the world, and in Greece as well,” Stamoulis said. “This is all the more so given that fire protection initiatives have been curbed — for instance, in forest management. Our forests have been abandoned over these last few years.”

Regarding the management, conservation and protection of Greek forests, it should be noted that one of the results of the mass privatization policies, now imposed under the SYRIZA-ANEL government, has been to hand over control of forestland to businessmen in the tourism sector — to “exploit” it for residential purposes or to use it commercially for the benefit of a few individuals, instead of in the interests of society as a whole.

In fact, some of this land is used under the debt repayment system — it has become collateral in the hands of banks or any private enterprise, or to cover the cost of overpriced pharmaceuticals and medical equipment purchased by private entities.

The conditions facing public-sector workers in charge of the Fire Service or forest protection are revealing: During the years of the Memorandums (2010-18), their salaries have been reduced by 50 percent!

As for staffing the government’s fire and forest protection agencies during the dangerous summer months, the SYRIZA government limited recruitment to about 300 foresters and 4,000 workers, a minimal number. The hiring was carried out only in mid-July — which means none of the work needed for the construction and maintenance of firebreaks and other measures was done in time.

The upside-down priorities of the Greek government — in neglecting spending on social needs on the one hand, while devoting money to debt servicing, bankers and entrepreneurs on the other — is glaring.

The areas that were devastated by wildfires had not been cleared of brush, nor firewalls maintained, while the capacity of the Fire Service to deal quickly with several large forest fires simultaneously was degraded.

Moreover, there was no coordination of services to evacuate the areas hit by the fires. There were workers assigned to issue warnings at the onset of fires, whether their origin was arson or otherwise.

This is also upside down: The means to fight wildfires must be protected from the Memorandum austerity policies and from the murderous priorities of capitalist profits!

THE SOLIDARITY and spontaneous coordination of people in the face of the terrible devastation is quite moving.

While the state was unable to meet the basic needs of the victims, thousands of ordinary people showed their solidarity in immediate and concrete ways.

This began with people self-organizing the collection of water, food, clothing, medicine and all kinds of supplies for people in need. Barely 24 hours after the fires had started, volunteer networks reported that their warehouses were already filled with donated supplies.

Hundreds of young people from all over Greece traveled to the fire-ravaged areas to help in any way they could. They divided themselves into groups, forming human chains to quickly unload trucks bringing aid and distributing the supplies to those who needed it, door to door, with their own cars.

Among those on the front line to help those affected by the fires were the poorest and most vulnerable sections of society: Migrants played a significant role. It is significant to note that the Pakistani community of Greece showed its support for the victims, both with statements and with community members traveling to the affected areas to help.

Egyptian fishermen rescued people from the sea, Palestinians and Kurds donated blood to hospitals, Syrians put out the call for volunteers, and the Roma distributed free fruits and vegetables.

On the other hand, the industrialists and shipowners were conspicuous by their absence, causing anger among large parts of the population.

While ordinary people gave, and continue to give, all they could, the Association of Greek Industrialists, in its official announcement, sent merely their loving tender thoughts to the victims. At the same time, leading representatives of the church spoke of the fires as some sort of divine punishment, generating contempt and scorn among most people.

From the outset, left-wing parties organizations stood alongside the victims from the first moment.

For many decades, the left has spoken out against the criminal irresponsibility of governments that left the Fire Service without adequate resources and equipment and that never implemented effective measures to protect forests.

Now, the magnitude of the disaster requires us to deepen our links with the people of affected areas in order to create ongoing structures for relief and solidarity. Moreover, we need to lay the foundations for a mass, united front political movement capable of acting responsibly when the state won’t — and opposing this scandal of a system that allows people to burn in the flames for the sake of Memorandums and austerity policies.

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