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Greece fire response wrecked by years of austerity

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Issue 2615
Firefighters in Greece
Firefighters in Greece

The Greek government faces outrage over its failures and austerity policies, following huge wildfires that killed almost 100 people last week.

As many as 91 people were reported dead and another 25 missing as Socialist Worker went to press after wildfires swept across the Attica region.

Last Friday Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras—leader of the left wing Syriza party—was forced to admit “full political responsibility” for the tragedy.

His government has overseen deep cuts to the fire brigade, emergency services and forest protection as part of austerity demanded by the European Union (EU).

Survivors of the fires turned their anger on the government after claims that emergency services and evacuation policies weren’t in place soon enough.

Some people fleeing the fires reportedly waited for up to two hours to be rescued.

Others were unable to find an escape route on their own. Bodies of 26 people were found hugging each other in a field near the village of Mati, one of the worst hit sites.

Citizens protection minister and Syriza MP Nikos Toskas has insisted that “no operational mistakes were made” during the emergency response. Yet as Greek firefighters pointed out, years of cuts left the service woefully unprepared.

Not only that the fires are not treated as they should but the aircraft crews are in great danger

Greece’s firefighting planes are too few, old and in constant disrepair. And last year the forest service was provided with just 10 percent of the funding it needs for fire prevention.

One pilot firefighter told Workers Solidarity, Socialist Workers’ sister newspaper in Greece, how there weren’t enough working planes to respond quickly.

They said that when fire broke out on the island of Kalamos on the west coast, firefighters had to wait for planes to arrive from Samos in the east and Thessaloniki in the north.

They added, “Aeroplanes are old and in bad condition. During summer fires constantly need to be put out, so any damages are patched up to get out quickly again. But this is against flight safety regulations.

“Repairs are often done on the cheap. And of course this means not only that the fires are not treated as they should but the aircraft crews are in great danger.”

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said he stood “side by side with the Greek people and authorities and I commend the tireless and courageous efforts of the emergency responders”.

Yet the EU was a major force demanding that Syriza implement savage cuts after it was elected to end austerity in 2015.

It preferred Greece to repay its debts to bosses and the bankers than fund the services that could have saved dozens of lives.

As Workers Solidarity wrote last week, “This is the lethal cost of the austerity”.

Carr Fire rages through California, killing seven

A wildfire in California had killed seven people and destroyed 517 buildings as Socialist Worker went to press.

The Carr fire has devastated the Shasta County in the north of the state, near the city of Redding.

And, as there is little prospect of temperatures falling, or humidity levels rising, the fire looks set to continue.

It is one of 17 wildfires raging in the state of California alone.

The context for the fires is years of drought in the western US. Between 2011 and 2017 California was gripped by a severe water shortage.

Between October and June Shasta County received just 55 percent of the average rainfall it had in previous years.

Drought is not the only reason behind the spread of the fires in the western US, but it is a contributory factor.

Weather conditions unique to the region create fire tornadoes, for instance, which allow the fire to spread in multiple directions at once. This makes the fires particularly difficult to predict and control.

In 2015 scientists attributed the severity of the drought in California to global warming, and predicted that this would also increase the likelihood and severity of future droughts.

“California, I believe, has a history of when droughts end, they have a history of discontinuing their efforts to improve resiliency to future drought because those efforts are costly in the short-term,” said Park Williams, a climate scientist at Colombia University.

In just the first 9 months of 2015 California firefighters responded to over 4,743 wildfires across the state. These burned 146,279 acres.

Trump’s response to the increasing threat of fire to ordinary people has been worse than indifference.

He is cutting over £200 million in funding to the US Forest Service’s wildfire fighting programmes.

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