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Dark clouds over Athens

Analysis: This week's fires in Greece were bad. But it's only going to get worse.

A thick cloud of smoke from a forest fire rises over Athens' Acropolis, Aug. 22, 2009. A large wildfire has raged out of control for days on the outskirts of Athens, burning several homes and thousands of acres of forest. (Icon/Reuters)

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.”