Pants on fire

Wildfire at Kareas region, in Athens, on July 17, 2015 / Πυρκαγιά στην περιοχή του Καρέα, στην Αθήνα, 17 Ιουλίου, 2015

If there is one constant to the Greek summer, it is the inevitable outbreak of forest fires. Frequently caused by negligent behaviour and sometimes by arson, and stoked by the etesian meltemi winds, they test national readiness on an annual basis, sometimes with catastrophic results.

This year, the wildfire season kicked off on a timely date in several separate regions, and to the hour that the government of Alexis Tsipras, having survived a referendum and a first-stage vote on the most onerous bailout package yet, was due to announce a reshuffle as a result of a number of high-profile ministerial defections.

All of this has been put aside as senior government figures rush to be seen on a civil emergency footing. The Prime Minister did his best to look prime ministerial at the emergency control centre (his first stop was the Defence Ministry, where his faulty understanding of civil contingency procedures was corrected). Meanwhile, his bête noir on the Left Platform, (expected soon to be ex-) Minister of Productive Reconstruction, Environment and Energy, Panagiotis Lamfazanis, was accused of opportunism and chased from the scene of a major fire on the fringes of a residential area in Athens by angry residents. By the time the evening news bulletins roll, we will be very disappointed if we aren’t treated to an appearance by Defence Minister Panos Kammenos in full weekend warrior mode, no doubt itching to make good on his commitment to deploy the army to maintain stability on the home front.

It is easy to speculate on the cause of the fires, and indeed the media tend to suspect malicious activity every time there are simultaneous multiple fronts. There will almost certainly be conspiracy theories around the suspicious timing. The truth is, under ideal conditions such as those prevailing today (high temperatures, low humidity, F6-8 winds), flare-ups are easily caused by electrical sparks or welding, and propagate rapidly. So let’s suspend judgement on that front.

More concerning is the potential for serious consequences, human, economic and political (not to mention of course environmental), from an uncontrollable disaster at a time when public resources are at an all-time low and government is in crisis. Now in the third week of capital controls, and after five years of austerity, one can only speculate on how battle-worthy the already threadbare civil emergency apparatus is. It unclear how many firefighting planes, helicopters and fire trucks are in serviceable condition, and how well-stocked they are with fuel. Eyewitness reports from Athens suggest that aerial support is sparse. That may be because they are overstretched by multiple fires across the country, or because the fronts in Athens are very near built-up areas where fire trucks are a safer option.

In the best case, the fires will be controlled, we will only be subjected to some odious grandstanding, and the country’s leadership can get back to putting out the bigger fires that threaten the country. A middle scenario would be for Tsipras and co. to use the emergency to delay implementing their commitments as part of the bailout agreement. This would be disastrous for the economy, which is only beginning to see a glimmer of hope. Third possibility, the previous scenario, plus the use of emergency powers to silence adverse media reporting and/or popular discontent. The nightmare scenario would be a 2007-scale national disaster with 2015 resources to cope, that would almost inevitably result a collapse of the government and all the attendant consequences.

Let’s hope for the best.

Photo of Wildfire at Kareas region, in Athens, on July 17, 2015 from iefimerida.gr

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Pants on fire

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