The real questions: What is it that makes the Greek landscape so very flammable? How can people live with wildfires? are not debated.
Most of the big Greek fires, the ones that get into the newspapers, involve pine-trees. The fact is that pines, and most other Mediterranean vegetation, are designed by Nature (or evolution) to burn. This is not a misfortune, but an adaptation. They burn because (like arbutus, laurel, palms etc.) they make flammable chemicals. It is their business in life to catch fire from time to time — by lightning if there is no other source of ignition — and burn up the less fire-adapted plants that would compete with them. Some kinds of pine survive the fire, protected by their fireproof bark; others die, but start again from seed released by their cones.
I don’t like agreeing with official pronouncements, but Mr Antonaros is not wrong. Pines are indeed fire-promoting. Greece has had pine trees and high winds for millions of years, and for millions of years the pine trees have burnt.
Pine fires around Athens are not new. In the 1840s the British Ambassador reported: ˜All Attica was in lurid red smoke for several days; we could not breathe, for whole sides of forests near shrunk, without a hand to stop them, before the fire. However, there is no doubt that Greece has become more flammable in the last hundred years. Mountain cultivation has declined, and abandoned terraces and pastures have become overgrown with pines and other flammable vegetation.
On trips to the old Athens airport I used to look across at Mount Hymettos and see the pines, year by year, creeping up a mountain that had been treeless since the time of Plato; and, sure enough, there was the first pine fire about ten years ago.
Another property of fires is that, while there are some fires every year, the big ones are concentrated into particular years when the weather is favourable, like Spain in 1994. In Greece in 2007, the most fiery season for at least 50 years, only 2% of the entire country was reported as having burnt.
I doubt whether the answer is to have yet more fire-fighting equipment. Helicopters and planes seem not to make much difference to a big fire: it goes on either until it runs out of flammable vegetation or until the wind dies down. In Australia, which is more flammable even than Greece, I was told that Sydney had the world’s biggest concentration of fire-fighting gadgets, and that the effect had been to lengthen the average interval between one fire and the next at any one point to seven years.
Anyway, putting out a fire doesn’t solve the problem. It merely lets fuel go on accumulating, so that the next fire is hotter and more unstoppable. In a land of smokers, thunderstorms, and overhead electricity cables there will always be sources of ignition. Do the people of Athens really want fewer bigger fires rather than more frequent smaller ones?
However, there are three lessons to be learnt. First, although there will always be fires, people’s actions aggravate the damage. It is folly to allow people to build houses in pinewoods, as so often happens around Athens and in other parts of the Mediterranean. There is nothing moral about this: it is simple cause and effect. If you build in a flood-plain you get wet the next time there is a flood; if you build under pine-trees, you get burnt the next time there is a fire. Even in the biggest conflagrations, traditional Greek villages usually escape, because they are surrounded by gardens and orchards and vines and plane-trees which don’t carry fire.
Second, we hear the story that fires are started by developers in order to get round a ban on building on land designated as forest. They believe that a burnt forest is not a forest and can be built on. I don’t know whether this is true, but if it is the law should be changed. It is folly to allow a fire to alter the legal status of land. A burnt forest is still a forest and should count as such.
Thirdly, politicians are not God: there are limits to their powers. They should not make themselves foolish by claiming responsibility for situations over which they have no real control, and journalists should not flatter them by accepting such claims.
A British Prime Minister can’t control swine flu or foot-and-mouth disease, and shouldn’t pretend that he can. A Greek Prime Minister can’t control earthquake or tsunami: why should he claim to be able to control conflagrations?