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Europe’s biggest fire on record triggers scapegoat hunting in Greece – POLITICO

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Greece is on the hunt for scapegoats as Europe’s biggest wildfire spirals out of control.

On Monday, firefighters battled for the 10th straight day to contain the blazes ravaging the northeast region of Evros, where multiple blazes have formed a deadly inferno.

Authorities say the first fire near the port town of Alexandropoulis was likely started by lightning. But as anger grows over insufficient prevention efforts and emergency services plead for reinforcements, much of Greece is concerned about the search for someone responsible.

Prominent Greek politicians have sought to draw the nation’s attention to the capture of the arsonists, with some even spreading conspiracy theories about who caused the fires.

Vassilis Kikilias, Minister of Civil Protection, blamed the fires on “arsonists” in a furious televised speech last week.

“You are committing a crime against the country, you won’t get away with it, we will find you, you will be held accountable,” he said.

With more than 770 square kilometers razed – an area roughly the size of New York City – the Evros fire is the largest blaze ever recorded by the European Forest Fire Information Service (EFFIS). since it began collecting data in 2000.

This is just one of many wildfires currently ravaging Greece. Across the country, fires have ravaged large tracts of land, more than 1,500 square kilometers this year, according to EFFIS. At least 20 people died.

The destruction is a stark reminder of the threat climate change poses to the country: the Mediterranean region is becoming hotter and drier as the planet heats up, making it easier to spread fires.

“We must continue to strengthen national efforts [and] collective efforts to prevent and prepare for more brutal fire seasons”, Janez Lenarčič, European Commissioner for Crises, warned last week in response to the Evros fire.

Experts say European countries need to step up forest management in particular, as fires spread particularly quickly through large areas of dry vegetation. Yet even though the Greek government has acknowledged that it needs to step up its prevention efforts, its response in recent weeks has been to look for scapegoats.

Most fires in the EU start because of human behavior, whether intentional or not. But the focus on what started the fires has drawn criticism from experts.

Víctor Resco de Dios, professor of forest science at Spain’s University of Lleida, said focusing on who or what started the blaze allows governments to “put the blame on individuals” rather than political failures.

“Whereas if the discussion is about what caused the fire to spread, then we will have to talk about who is responsible for managing the forests – and in this case, the blame could lie with the politicians,” he said. he adds. “That’s why the debate often quickly moves away from forest management to focus on the causes of inflammation. »

Across Greece, the fires – and the political focus on finding the culprits – are stoking existing tensions.

In Evros, residents pointed the finger at migrants and refugees; the region, close to the Turkish border, is a frequent transit point for those seeking a better life in the European Union.

“We are at war,” said Paris Papadakis, an MP from Greece’s far-right Solution party which represents Evros. “They came here in a coordinated way and the illegal migrants specifically burned more than 10 places,” he claimed.

Several newspapers published inflammatory headlines accusing the migrants.

Some residents literally searched for scapegoats, locking up 13 asylum seekers in one case whom they accused of arson in a van. The Alexandroupolis prosecutor’s office charged the 13 with attempted arson; they were later released. Their captors are awaiting trial.

Greek Solution president Kyriakos Velopoulos also last week blamed the fires on “illegal immigrants”. Last month he sought to build on existing opposition to wind power by blaming wind turbines – the conspiracy theory that land is being burned to make way for wind farms is widespread in Greece.

Greece has arrested dozens of suspected arsonists in recent weeks, but many have since been released.

For example, three out of four people arrested last Thursday have been released. The lighters found in their possession, believed to be incriminating evidence, did not work, while the suspect sprays turned out to be car air fresheners. The fourth suspect is a person with serious psychological problems, according to local media.

So far, no one – neither local nor migrant – has been found guilty of starting fires around Evros. But authorities are fairly certain that most of the victims of the fire are migrants and refugees hiding in the woods.

Pavlos Pavlidis, the coroner of Alexandropoulis, told Greek media that two of the 18 charred bodies in the area last week were children.

“They were all found in groups of two or three people at a distance of 500 metres,” he said, “apparently trying to escape.”

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to correct the area burned by wildfires in Greece this summer. It’s 1,500 square kilometres.


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