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In Aftermath of Greek Fires, Suspicion Combines With Grief and Recrimination

NEOS VOUTZAS, Greece — The first fire alarm sounded in Kineta, a town an hour west of Athens, the capital, at 12:30 p.m. on Monday. Then, at 4:57 p.m. authorities received calls on their 199 hotline reporting flames near Rafina, east of the capital.

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In Aftermath of Greek Fires, Suspicion Combines With Grief and Recrimination
Jason Horowitz
, New York Times

NEOS VOUTZAS, Greece — The first fire alarm sounded in Kineta, a town an hour west of Athens, the capital, at 12:30 p.m. on Monday. Then, at 4:57 p.m. authorities received calls on their 199 hotline reporting flames near Rafina, east of the capital.

Just about an hour later, the wildfire had reached Neos Voutzas, to the northeast, then powered by gale-force winds moved “like a lava flow” down the hill to the seaside town of Mati, fire officials said.

Greeks on Wednesday were still piecing together one of the nation’s worst disasters in recent memory. But many were asking how so many scattered fires had broken out in so short a span and spread with such fatal velocity. Suspicion of arson combined with grief and recrimination as shattered Greeks sifted through the ruins of fires that killed at least 80 people.

Officials and residents braced for the toll to climb still higher as rescue workers searched for an undetermined number of people feared dead among as many as 2,500 burned homes.

“Those fires are not so innocent,” Nikos Toskas, Greece’s minister of public order and citizen protection, said Monday, apparently suspicious of the proliferation of so many small fires.

Firefighters were still putting out smoldering areas as Greece suffered a fatal combination of scorching 100-degree temperatures and severe drought that turned its hillside forests into kindling. The strongest winds in eight years rained burning pines down like missiles as the fires spread.

An expected investigation into the cause of the fires will not begin until all of them are out, a fire brigade spokesman said. But Greeks speculated that the fires could have been started on purpose by landowners eager to clear protected forestland for development, and residents and officials disagreed as to whether an evacuation was ever ordered.

For decades, illegally built homes in wooded areas have raised concerns even as the government, desperate for cash in the wake of the 2010 debt crisis, allowed owners to pay light fines to enter into regulation. The disregard for rules and regulations that often has plagued Greece may have contributed to a disaster that not everyone is convinced was natural.

Marathon Avenue, the area’s major thoroughfare and the route dating to the road run by the ancient messenger, is now spotted with companies like Easy Home, which sells prefabricated houses to Athenians hungry for an affordable vacation house by the sea.

Closer to the coast, more stores sell cinder blocks, cords of wood, fireplaces and outdoor furniture supplies. Many of the burned houses tucked into the woods or on small ravines had the structure of those prefabricated, and sometimes illegally constructed, houses.

“It’s obvious that if you build a house in a forest, you may have a problem,” said Dimitris Papaspiropoulos, 49, who checked on his vineyards off the avenue near Rafina. He pointed out a house he said was illegally built up the scorched road. “If they keep building houses they will keep having problems.”

Kaiti Milioni, 55, who has a summer house in Mati, blamed poor urban planning for the disaster.

“There is no street or town planning, there aren’t any proper roads, most of the houses were built in the ‘60s, these houses should have been demolished and built again from scratch,” Milioni said. “We’ve been making these demands to the Marathon municipality for years, but we never received a response.”

From 1991 to 2004, the Attica region, which includes Athens and its surrounding vacation areas, lost 26 percent of its forest area, according to a study by Atlas, a group of local academics and geographers. They also found that more than 65 percent of fires in the region start for unknown reasons.

Only 2.6 percent have been attributed to natural causes. Arson is so frequent that it is not unheard-of to blame shepherds for burning down acres of forest to create pastures for their sheep to graze.

In July 2016, the Greek Parliament passed legislation allowing the builders of illegal houses to pay a small fine during a two-year amnesty period.

Many of those houses are now gone, as the dark trail of the wildfire cut through the green trees from Neos Voutzas down to Mati like a long shadow.

On Wednesday morning, police patrolled the upscale Neos Voutzas area, where they said they arrested four people for looting the previous night. Some residents began accusing authorities for coming to their rescue too late, and for failing to appropriately communicate the danger.

“They let us die, the police and the fire brigade let us die,” said Rozmari Koloktroni, 46, who said that before fleeing with her family to the sea, she saw police officers direct escaping people into Mati, creating a deadly traffic jam. “That’s why people burned to death in their cars.”

Mayor Evangelos Bournous of the port town of Rafina has acknowledged that there was not a sufficient evacuation program in place but has insisted that authorities did tell people to leave. Inside the town hall on Wednesday, the first floor had been turned into a volunteer headquarters, with residents picking up water, bread, condensed milk, toilet paper, and adult and baby diapers. A shouting match broke out between people collecting supplies and others accusing them of being from a neighboring township.

Upstairs, Bournous met with the general secretary of Greece’s Communist Party and other politicians. As he departed for a meeting in Athens with Prime Minister Alexis Tispras, the mayor said it would take another 15 days to get power back in the area.

“We are trying to get back to normal life,” he said.

But the mayor, whose own home was damaged, said he was “very anxious” about the possibility of finding bodies in the burned houses. “I think the total number will be much higher,” he said.

That death toll, and the awful way many died, has largely drawn the usually contentious Greeks together.

“We can’t find words enough, we are devastated,” said Marianna Vardinoyannis, the wife of Vardis Vardinoyannis, one of Greece’s richest and most powerful businessmen.

Leaving the town hall after meeting with Bournous, she said that, beyond all the loss of life, the damage to property was enormous and that she had told the mayor that her private foundation would send computers, expertise and the gas that her husband’s company produced. Flanked by representatives from the American Embassy and Greek diaspora groups, she said, “We will do whatever they need.”

But the first priority remained accounting for all the missing.

Vasilios Andriopoulos, who is running the rescue operations for the Red Cross, said his crew discovered the 26 people in Mati who died only yards from the sea. They were clustered in groups of four or five, usually around a child. “Families,” he said.

He said they were now looking into the disappearance of 9-year-old twin girls who had been rescued in Rafina and whose possible abduction had seized Greece’s attention. But he said their main focus would be to search the destroyed homes in the area, as many as 2,500, and to locate the many missing people who are feared to be dead.

Arion Zikes, a 30-year-old nurse volunteering with the Red Cross, said, “Sometimes it’s difficult to see the people, they look like charcoal.”

In Rafina, Twafik Halil, 42, recalled how fast the fire came, obscuring the sky and sea and keeping his fellow Egyptian fishermen in the port until the police asked for their help in the search effort. He said they picked up scores of survivors, and he poured water in the eyes and mouths of exhausted people who came to the port by the hundreds.

Some of those survivors slowly returned to their houses to survey the damage and try and put things back together.

Alexandros Prokopiou, 72, returned to Mati to inspect his house. It was damaged, but his 1965 Simca sedan was now an ashen mass of metal.

“It was white,” his wife, Magdalini Prokopiou, 65, said of the car. “Like sugar.” Alexandros Prokopiou poked the bare springs of the seats with a car jack. “It was a beautiful car,” he said. “It was.”

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