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What's Happening in Greece After the Fires?

This summer saw the worst forest fires in Greece in living memory. Lives and villages were lost, but there has been little lasting damage to the country's ancient landmarks.

This summer saw the worst forest fires in Greece in living memory. Yet, at this writing, although the fires seriously inconvenienced some summer visitors to Greece -- and seriously frightened others who were evacuated from burning areas -- it appears that little lasting damage has been done to the Greek tourism industry. In September, the Greek travel agents's association HATTA reported that "All national roads are fully accessible, all archaeological sites and museums are open, and hotels and resorts are not afffected and are operating as normal." That means that you do not have to worry about visiting the places you plan to visit in Greece, from Thessaloniki in the north, to Delphi in the center, down to Olympia in the south.

A spokesperson in Athens at the Greek National Tourist Office (which is, tellingly, never known for giving bad news) told me in early September that they have not had reports of travelers cancelling their plans to visit Greece now, or for next summer. That said, because of the fires, many British travel firms were offering discounts of a third or more on package holidays to Greece this autumn. So, what should you do, if you are planning a trip to Greece? Come ahead, but be prepared as you travel to see fire damage. From the Acropolis itself, fire damage on the surrounding mountains is -- and will be for years -- evident . As a hotel owner in Olympia told me recently, "Here the green is gone." If you wish, celebrate the wonderful time you will have in Greece by making a contribution to the reforestation project Plant Your Roots in Greece (www.saeusa.org).

There has been long-lasting damage to forests, pasturage, farmland, the loss of 65 lives and the destruction of many hundreds of houses. Millions of olive trees have been burnt, thousands of villagers are homeless. On August 31, the Federation of Greek Farmers announced that at least 10,000 farms had been destroyed and that it would take at least ten years to get olive oil production back to where it had been before the fires. Greeks are making rueful jokes about having to buy olive oil from "outside" next year.

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How did all these fires start? There's at least one serious heat wave in Greece each summer, usually in August, often with temperatures going over 40°C/105°F for as long as a week or two. This year, there were three such heat waves, beginning in June and not ending until well into August. No one could remember similar back-to-back virtually non-stop heat waves. But, then, no one could remember most of Greece having a drought since the previous October. Furthermore, the heat waves were not just in the famously hot parts of the country, such as Athens and Thessaly, but throughout Greece.

Along with the heat waves came the fires. Some were caused simply by the terribly high temperatures; others were set by pyromaniacs, property developers, and the careless, flicking cigarettes into dry brush. There were isolated fires in June and in July, and where I was in the Peloponnese, there was an unnerving smell of smoke in the air from fires burning near the medieval fortress of AcroCorinth and threatening the site of ancient Corinth. But it wasn't until August that newspaper headlines could say "Greece On Fire." There were fires from the north, outside Greece's second city Thessaloniki, in the plain of Thessaly, ferociously on the island of Euboia, fires encircling Athens and burning its "green lungs" on Mt. Parnitha, and fires near the best-known ancient sites in the Peloponnese: Corinth, Epidauros, Nafplion, even ancient Olympia itself was threatened. Worse -- since these famous sites were spared -- were the fires that rampaged through small villages on the west coast of the Peloponnese, north and south of the town of Zahero. In Zahero alone, more than 30 villagers died, including a mother and her four children. Small wonder that the Prime Minister, Kostas Karamanlis, declared a national day of mourning on August 25.

There was considerable speculation that the Greek National Elections, which Karamanlis had called for September 16, might be deferred. The elections went ahead, and, despite a wide-spread dissatisfaction with how Karamanlis had reacted to the fires, his Nea Demokratia party was returned to power -- admittedly with a very slim majority. Even now, the fires are very much in the news, as workers attempt to get feed to flocks whose pasturage has been destroyed and to repair the extensive fire damage. On September 22, the Minister of Culture, Michaelis Liapis, pledged that work to restore and protect Ancient Olympia, would be completed in the next several weeks. The trees on the Hill of Kronos, above the ancient site, burnt to the ground and the ancient stadium itself suffered some damage. Minister Liapis offered assurances that the work would be finished in the next several weeks, before the expected autumn rains. And he offered assurances that the Lighting of the Olympic Torch for the Beijing Olympics would take place as scheduled on March 25 on the Hill of Kronos.

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