Athens inferno: what lessons must be learned?

The number of deaths in the wildfires around Athens has risen to 83, according to official figures. No other fire in the 21st century has killed as many people. Firefighters now have the blazes largely under control, but the search for the causes continues in Europe's media.

Open/close all quotes
Kathimerini (GR) /

No use was made of modern technology

Costas Synolakis, professor of natural hazards at the University of Crete, writes about the mistakes and omissions made in the management of the fire disaster:

“Greece has only a handful of areas that have carried out civil protection drills. It has no maps of its high-risk areas and possible escape routes, nor any kind of campaign for educating the public on the risks they face in their place of residence. ... We tested the US Forest Service’s Farsite system [a model for calculating how fires will spread] on a trial basis in 2014. ... As we saw from yesterday’s events, though, neither the Civil Protection Agency’s command center nor the municipal authorities in the area had knowledge of the possibilities offered by modern technology for planning the evacuation of densely populated woodland areas.”

Diário de Notícias (PT) /

Cuts must not compromise fire prevention

Diário de Notícias sees parallels with the forest fires in Portugal last year:

“Those who pay taxes - and that's more than just a few - should not feel totally unprotected every time a fire breaks out. Neither in Portugal nor in Greece. What we saw happen in Athens was dreadful. Among the Portuguese it has reawakened memories of the disastrous forest fires in June and October 2017. In both countries, all kinds of justifications have been put forward for the fires. ... What remains is a sense of impotence and of lacking protection from the state (with which the Portuguese are very familiar). ... There are things that every state must guarantee, such as the safety of its citizens. A state can implement all kinds of cutbacks and troika plans - but it must not abdicate its key functions.”

Agos (TR) /

Hatred of Greeks poisoning Turkey

In Turkey some social media users have rejoiced over the fire tragedy in Athens and called for fuel to be poured on the Greek enemy. Agos, the weekly paper of the Armenian minority, is appalled:

“There are far too many such people, enough to poison society. It's not enough to say that these are isolated incidents. Above all because this wasn't the first 'incident' and it probably won't be the last. ... A narcissistic, paranoid and egocentric typology is at play here. Perhaps not everyone who uses these expressions possesses these traits, but as soon as opinions are voiced collectively from the national identity, these traits come to the fore. Such an attitude is one that we learn and a problem for us all, because it forms the basis of a political system that is making all our lives hell.”

tagesschau.de (DE) /

Fault-finding doesn't help

For tagesschau.de the discussion about the supposedly clumsy efforts of the Greek fire service is appalling:

“The truth is that in Greece too, scientists and experienced forest and fire experts have been researching better concepts for countering the effects of fires for decades. There are good examples, for instance on the island of Thassos, of how improved forest management can lessen the negative consequences of fires for trees, animals and people. As with other Greek-European topics, fault-finding won't help, but reaching out and inviting others to talk about new and more effective strategies for fighting and preventing fires can.”

Naftemporiki (GR) /

Politicians no good for disaster management

Greece needs a non-partisan institution to better manage the consequences of natural disasters, Naftemporiki comments:

“The tragedies continue unabated. When it rains here people drown, and when there are forest fires they burn. It's the same thing with every natural disaster - regardless of which party happens to be in power. It's time we became a modern, European country. A non-partisan coordinating body composed exclusively of experts must finally be set up. It must be staffed by people who have the knowledge and experience necessary to save lives, people who are only interested in people and don't just think about them once every four years when election time rolls around.”

The Irish Times (IE) /

This is the result of climate change

The lives claimed by the forest fires in Greece force us to look at the causes, The Irish Times points out:

“The evidence is now compelling that extreme weather-related events - wildfires, floods, hurricanes and storms, avalanches and droughts - are occurring across our world at a faster rate. ... An overwhelming majority of qualified scientists agree that the underlying source of this increase is accelerating climate change. ... The time for platitudes and green-washing advertising campaigns is long over. Slowing down climate change is the century's defining issue. The consequences of failing are no longer in some fanciful future. They are right before our eyes.”

Infowar (GR) /

Crocodile tears out of place

The EU politicians can keep their condolences and sympathy for Greece, columnist Aris Chatzistefanou fumes on the website Infowar, criticising at the same time the country's high defence spending:

“The people are appalled when they see Juncker and other European officials shedding their crocodile tears for the victims because they know that it was them who imposed the austerity measures. With these measures they limited the state's ability to act and destroyed the funds for fire prevention. ... The people know all too well how many firefighting planes we would have if we weren't the country that contributes most to Nato's military spending after the US - and the only country that increased its defence budget in the midst of the crisis.”

La Repubblica (IT) /

EU has a soul after all

In view of the fires Europe is showing a different attitude, business journalist Ettore Livini comments jubilantly in La Repubblica:

“After eight years of distrust and misunderstandings Europe returned to Greece yesterday to show solidarity. 'This is the time to fight, be brave and be united', was the appeal made by Prime Minister Tsipras after the tragic fires near Athens. And the EU reacted in record time. ... Confronted with the flames and the dramatic reports of the victims the Old Continent has taken its heart in its hand and won back a piece of its soul. It has proven that Europe is more that meeting budget requirements and Maastricht criteria - a ray of hope at a time when sovereigntism is winning the day.”

Protagon.gr (GR) /

Fire protection must be government's top priority

Not just the extreme weather conditions but also the delays in building up an effective firefighting infrastructure have caused this tragedy, Protagon stresses:

“Naturally, the government is not solely responsible for the delays. Nevertheless it has had to deal with similar crises in the past three and a half years. The prime minister should promise that he will do everything in his power to prevent something like this from ever happening again in Greece. ... He must make cutbacks in certain areas and invest the sacred primary surplus in fire prevention and firefighting infractructure. Now! There is no other priority.”

To Vima Online (GR) /

Cheap excuses cost lives

This tragedy could have been avoided, To Vima Online comments:

“Greece has many bitter experiences with such fires, and has mourned the death of hundreds of victims in recent decades. This means that there can be no more excuses for the mental sluggishness on the part of the government and the authorities. The fires are a fact and every year they become more dangerous. But enough is enough: there must be no more cheap excuses. ... The state must arm itself adequately, and above all firefighters must have the possibility to react as soon as fires start. Otherwise we'll count more and more victims with each year that passes.”