Fires rob pollution-choked Athens of fresh air filter
The latest fires to ravage woodland around Athens are an ecological disaster which will affect the quality of life of the capital's 4.5 million residents for years, environmental experts said Monday.
"It's not really the first time that Attica (the prefecture including Athens) has been affected, but we have never seen a fire on such a scale before in the region," said Dimitris Karavellas, the Greek head of the environmental pressure group WWF.
Athens has long suffered from poor air quality and a lack of open spaces so the loss of yet more large swathes of forestry will be acutely felt.
"We have lost a precious filter to freshen up our air. The climate is going to get worse again, the temperature will rise and the quality of life of all Athenians is going to be affected," added Karavellas.
His view was echoed by Leonidas Kouris, the region's governor, who described the wildfires as a "disaster for the environment, without doubt the most serious of recent years".
Although the fires are still burning, the municipality has so far calculated that some 15,000 hectares of woodland has been damaged in the fires, in particular pine forest around the ancient city of Marathon.
The latest losses come in the same area as fires in 1993, 1995, and 1998 where reforestation has since proved to be very difficult.
More woodland close to the capital was lost in July 2007, when thousands of hectares went up in flames in the Mount Parnitha national park, about 30 kilometers (20 miles) north of Athens.
"The other danger is desertification. It's essential that work begins soon so that when we do have some rainfall it penetrates the surface and can be retained in the soil," said Christina Theohari, a senior researcher on the environment.
"Finding an ecological balance again is going to take years. Athenians are going to have to be ultra-careful that areas which have been affected get proper environmental protection as laid down by the law and do not end up being reclassified and cleared for development," said Theohari.
Many fires in the past have been started deliberately by unscrupulous developers frustrated by greenbelt planning restrictions.
One parcel of land on Mount Penteli which was badly damaged by fire in 1998 was subsequently rezoned for construction.
But in the face of an increasingly environmentally aware public, the authorities now find it more difficult to bend the rules "even if they continue to close their eyes to isolated cases of illegal construction," said Karavellas.
According to the experts, the lack of attention paid by politicians to environmental considerations also helps explain the extent of the damage caused by the wildfires.
The Eleftherotypia newspaper said that "fire corridors have not been cut, forests have not been cleaned and the brush not cut back" since the last major summer of fires two years ago.
"It is as if no lessons have been learnt since the summer of 2007" when wildfires in southern Greece killed 77 people and reduced more 250,000 hectares of woodland to cinders, added Karavellas.