Politics & Policy

Greek Tragedy

Athens ablaze.

The near simultaneous breakout of dozens of Greek fires at first glance seems inexplicable. I lived in Greece for two years and have visited almost every year since 1980, and can’t recall anything comparable to the present conflagration. A couple of thoughts about this tragedy:

True, Olympia lies in  forest surroundings, but the site itself is fairly well-watered and thinned out. And the limestone and marble of the temples there would have to suffer sustained heat of about 1,000 degrees for the stones to dissolve. Possible but unlikely.

But mountain villages, especially in the dry Peloponnese, are a real problem. During the Ottoman occupation, the population often shifted to the mountains to escape the Turkish authorities. Now these villages are often half-deserted, perched on hillsides, and hard to get to. The result is that fires often cut off access, and leave the elderly who remained on ancestral lands isolated and alone — and unreachable. Fortunately, the areas affected don’t have the population densities like New Orleans during Katrina, or Paris in the August heat wave), so there probably won’t be several hundred (or as in the French case, thousands) lost, as in those disasters.

Greece after antiquity (there seems to have been much more forests in the ancient past) has struggled to replant its denuded hills. Wood was always scarce and burned for fuel, for heat, and to power the lime kilns. Shepherds lit fires to clear out brush and open up grassy meadows to the sun. And now crazy laws on the books allow developers to exploit “ruined” land, but not pristine forests. So unexplained fires suddenly can become very profitable to some. The Greeks, who have a long history of terrorists, are rightly worried about them, but it’s hard to believe that the current fires are the result of some foreign plot — more likely a lot of arsonists freelancing and figuring the authorities are so preoccupied that they can get away with proverbial murder in their own locale.

The tragedy is that Greece, except in the north and a very few other places, doesn’t have our Sierra/Rockies-like climates where lots of snow and spring run-off make replanting seedlings easy. The hills are dry, more like Los Angeles or Oakland in October. Once these trees burn, the hills turn to mud-quagmires in the winter, and it takes years and lots of money and watering to replant hillsides. The olive groves that are torched are a different matter. By next spring, if not earlier, they will send suckers back out. The olive trees can be regrafted (if all the cultivated limbs are burned off — probably not so likely) and back in production in 2-3 years. I’ve seen entire groves lost to grass fires that came back quite well and quickly.

After Katrina, the Greeks offered the use of cruise ships for the homeless to the U.S., so I hope we can reciprocate with air and fire-fighting support.

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

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