A year on from Greek wildfires, locals are skeptical lessons have been learned – POLITICO

ISTIAIA, Greece — The intense odor of scorched land still hangs in the air on Evia, and despite promises of economic renewal, nearly a year on from devastating wildfires, the sense of despair among locals remains.

Among the blackened pines and oaks which stand firm like matches as far as the eye can see, nature is beginning to heal the island’s apocalyptic outlook. Under the blackened carcasses, a thick green carpet is growing, including the saplings that will one day restore the wooded landscape.

But though life is starting to return, the locals have little hope that grand promises of economic regeneration made in the fire’s aftermath will be fully kept. And they have even less confidence their government has learned what it must to do to prevent such disasters in future.

The ongoing threat is clear. Earlier this month, firefighters struggled to keep under control yet another fire, which was raging in the center of Evia. Kremasto, a village of around 150 inhabitants, had to be evacuated.

And beyond Greece, the early summer heatwave across Europe has fueled wildfires in Germany, where around around 20 villages had to be evacuated south of Berlin, and Spain, where more than 600 firefighters battled a blaze in the Sierra de la Culebra mountain range.

Back on Evia, Greece’s second largest island, the shock from the fire is still raw.

“There is still a lot of anger and rage,”said Vaggelis Georgantzis, head of the resin producers union, who spoke to POLITICO in the aftermath of the blaze in August 2021.

“It’s difficult to conceive what happened, they let the fire burn until it reached the sea. I wake up in the morning and for a moment I still expect to see the forest, and then reality kicks in — and despair and resentment,” he added.

In the wake of the destruction, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis vowed to “rebuild northern Evia better and more beautiful than it was” and pledged hundreds of millions of euros for reconstruction.

Georgantzis along with some 700 resin producers will next month start working in the forest on reforestation, flood protection and other projects. The 7-year government program was supposed to start in January and has been delayed, while no specific training has yet been designed for the workers.

But though the restoration program is welcome, as well as the fact that it’s going to last longer than initially expected, he is still worried about the longer-term future. Some younger colleagues that had no family have already left the island. “If they stayed here till they were 35 or 40 they would get screwed like us,” said Georgantzis.

Government compensation for fire losses has also been inconsistent, in part due to the fact that many of the local farmers and shepherds didn’t have the necessary licensing or paperwork. “I haven’t received a single euro from the state,” said 61-year-old shepherd Michalis Tachtsoglou, who is one of the lucky ones that managed to save his animals — though shacks for sheltering the animals were destroyed and his land scorched.

“They promised money, money, tons of money. Where are they? They say my shack wasn’t built with bricks [so wasn’t eligible] … They abandoned us.”

Also part of the economic revival effort was a five-day film festival earlier this month, as well as subsidies for tourism. There is also the promise of several infrastructure projects, including a 56 kilometer road that will run through the northern part of the island ending its isolation.

But Yiannis Kontzias, mayor of the town of Istiaia, says that the municipality has not yet received any cash and so the projects are yet to start. “The island is basically in a state of war and we have to act fast. The reconstruction plan is in the right direction, but there is still a long way to go to make it reality,” he said.

“Ιt is perfectly logical for every mayor to express concern, to address the problems in local communities in the best possible way,” said government spokesperson Giannis Oikonomou in response to the mayor’s earlier criticism of the state response.

“Often, in expressing this concern, exaggerations and unfair things are heard. It is both exaggerated and unfair that not a single euro has fallen on Evia or North Evia,” he said, pointing out that the government has already allocated €300 million.

And experts argue Greece is not doing enough to prevent future tragedies. A WWF report found that 84 percent of state expenditure goes on fighting wildfires, compared with just 16 percent spent on prevention.

With the prospect of a long hot summer ahead, communities still feel vulnerable. “We’re burned and what we want is for the rest of the country not to get burned,” saidKontzias. “What happened in Evia should be a lesson for everyone.”

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