Dark clouds over Athens

ATHENS, Greece — For days, a cloud of acrid brown smoke has hung over the city of Athens, while at night nearby mountains glowed orange-red in the distance. Once again, the summer holidays have been tainted by news of massive fires, this time threatening the capital city itself.

For many Greeks, the scenes playing out 24/7 on Greek television have a sickening familiarity: walls of flames bearing down on villages, panicked residents fleeing or desperately trying to protect their properties with buckets and branches.

Just two years ago, the country experienced its worst fires in living memory. More than 70 people were killed, many trapped on mountain roads while trying to flee their villages. Although there have been no deaths in this year’s fires, the sight of so much devastation again so soon has left Greeks stunned and angry.

Opposition parties and the media have already begun attacking the government for failing to follow through on promises to reform the country’s fire fighting infrastructure.

Forestry experts are also critical of the Greek government’s forest fire policy, saying more needs to be done prevent fires not just put them out once they’ve begun. But they also warn that climate change is likely to intensify the problem in the future, as the Mediterranean region suffers from more frequent heat waves and droughts. Climate models predict that the Mediterranean will suffer from more frequent and more ferocious fires. But some scientists and environmentalists say there’s evidence that climate change is already having an effect.

According to the European Forest Institute (EFI), the number of fires in Mediterranean Europe has increased in recent years. Between 2000 and 2006, there were an average of 50,000 fires a year in the region, compared to around 30,000 a year in the 1980s. And in Greece, 2007 was the hottest, driest year on record — climate conditions which scientists say contributed to that year’s deadly fires.

“Wildfires will always happen in the Mediterranean,” says Dr. Marc Palahi, head of the Mediterranean office of EFI, located in Barcelona. “But the problem of climate change is making things even more severe. We will have more extreme years, and with climate change, vulnerability will increase.”

Greece isn’t the only European country to have been hit hard by forest fires this year. In Spain, 185,000 acres have already burned, more than twice what went up in flames during the whole of last year. Italy, France and Portugal have also experienced major fires in recent months.

In Athens, some scientists fear the loss of forest areas to recent fires could also lead to an increase in the local temperature.

Forests can help lower temperatures in the immediate area, but in recent years, fires have devastated many of the forested areas around the city. The blazes over the last few days have burned much of what was left. Mount Penteli, which looms over the city and has been hit repeated by fires in recent years, was struck once again, while the pine forests near the town of Marathon were virtually wiped out. And as the sun set Monday evening, another fire raged on Mount Kitheronas, on Greece’s western coast near the resort of Porto Germeno.

As one Greek paper, the leftist daily Eleftherotypia, declared: “Disorganization, indifference, criminal negligence give the final blow to Attica: It’s finished.” Palahi says Greece and other countries in the region are in caught in a destructive cycle where they respond to fires by spending more on fire fighting, especially buying expensive planes and helicopters. But in order to address the growing problem, he said, more needs to be done to prevent fires. But that requires planning and investment.

“Policymakers very often are looking for short-term results,” he said. “Prevention takes 10, 15, even 20 years.”