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August 26, 2009

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Greek leaders seared by critics

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

Firefighters patrolled smoldering areas north and east of the capital yesterday, guarding against flare-ups while assessing the damage.

At least 150 homes have burned down, officials said, while tens of thousands of hectares 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 burned 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.

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 started on 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 yesterday the effort had been "well-coordinated," but he did not comment on any specific criticisms.

The Cabinet planned to meet to discuss possible relief measures for those whose homes were damaged.

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."


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