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Firefighters win battle against Athens blazes

With a wildfire contained after raging for days near Athens, the Greek government faced a different kind of firestorm Tuesday as media lambasted its response to the blaze as inadequate.
Image: A woman removes debris from her damaged house in Penteli suburb in Athens, Greece
A woman removes debris from her damaged house in the Penteli suburb of Athens, Greece, on Tuesday. John Kolesidis / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

With a wildfire contained after raging for days near Athens, the Greek government faced a different kind of firestorm Tuesday as media lambasted its response to the blaze as inadequate.

Firefighters patrolled smoldering areas north and east of the capital Tuesday, guarding against flareups while assessing the damage.

At least 150 homes have burned down, officials said, while tens of thousands of hectares (acres) of pine forest, olive grove, brush and farmland have been decimated. Experts warned it would take generations to replace the forests, and that many were burnt beyond the hope of natural regrowth.

It was the most destructive blaze ever in the Attica region, and the worst in Greece since the 2007 wildfires that burned for more than two months and killed 76 people while laying waste to 275,000 hectares (679,500 acres).

Greek volunteers were seen trying to beat back the flames with pine branches, buckets of water and limp garden hoses, while several local mayors were sharply critical of the help they received from the government.

Officials have not said how the fire was started Friday night. Hundreds of forest blazes plague Greece every summer and some are set intentionally — often by unscrupulous land developers or animal farmers seeking to expand their grazing land.

The conservative government defended its effort in fighting the fire, which involved water-dropping aircraft from Italy, Cyprus and France. Government spokesman Evangelos Antonaros said Tuesday the effort had been "well-coordinated," but he did not comment on any specific criticisms. The Cabinet was meeting Tuesday to discuss possible relief measures for those whose homes were damaged.

'Fatal errors and omissions'
Greek newspapers said, however, that the government had learned nothing from the 2007 wildfires, and had failed to improve fire protection measures and equipment from two years ago.

"Fatal errors and omissions," the conservative daily Kathimerini said in a front-page headline. "The same mistakes were repeated all over ... lack of coordination, a faulty assessment of the situation, delays and infighting."

Opposition papers were even more critical. The daily Eleftherotypia headlined one story on the fires with "The Criminal State." Another daily Ta Nea wrote "It's the pine trees' fault!" — a headline mocking Monday's statement by Antonaros that said "Pine trees may be beautiful but they impede firefighting efforts."

In a scathing editorial, Ta Nea faulted the government's rejection of help from some countries such as Russia, and claimed that "Over the past five years ... no new equipment has been purchased."

Greek media had reported that a Russian offer of a plane and a helicopter to help the Greek firefighting effort was turned down, as was an offer from Austria to send six helicopters. The Greek government has not commented on these reports.

The fire broke out Friday night in a mountainous area near the town of Marathon — site of one of ancient history's most famous battlegrounds.

Mountain scorched
For days a pall of smoke hung over Athens, cloaking capital in an eerie brown half-light. Most of Mount Penteli, which separates Athens from the Marathon plain, was scorched to its 1,109-meter (3,638-foot) peak.

Before firefighters managed to contain the flames Monday, some 21,000 hectares (51,890 acres) of pine forest, olive grove and farmland had been destroyed, according to the European Forest Fire Information System.

Some 500 firefighters, assisted by 300 soldiers, were patrolling the area Tuesday, a firefighting spokesman said. From the air, three planes and one helicopter were dropping water on the remaining flames, after 19 aircraft including involved Monday unleashed some 14,000 tons of water on the Athens blaze.

A fire was still burning Tuesday near villages on Evia island, east of the capital, and another to the northwest near the coastal town of Porto Germeno was under partial control, the spokesman said.

The main opposition Socialist Party planned to make a statement Tuesday, while Communist Party leader Aleka Papariga said the government had been "ineffective and disorganized" in responding to what she claimed was an organized move by land speculators.

"The government must account for ... the lack of a master plan, the delay in acquiring adequate equipment to fight the fires from the air and the lack of trained personnel."

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