As Greek wildfires continue to rage, residents blame rising death toll on authorities' lack of a disaster plan

  • The death toll from the Greek wildfires now stands at 81, with 186 people seriously injured and about 100 people missing.
  • Greek residents are angry that the country does not have an effective plan in place to deal with extreme natural disasters.
  • In 2016 the IMF warned Greek authorities that any further reduction in government operating costs would be damaging to the country.
People watch a wildfire in the town of Rafina, near Athens. 
ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP/Getty Images
People watch a wildfire in the town of Rafina, near Athens. 

The devastating fires in the suburbs of Athens that have left more than 80 dead and damaged hundreds of residences and vehicles has revealed that Greece, a country that annually hosts millions of tourists, does not have an effective plan in place to deal with extreme natural disasters, even in areas that are just 40 miles away from the Greek capital.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras called the wildfires an “asymmetrical” phenomenon, but the country's residents are angry that the Greek authorities have failed to tackle the situation responsibly, dismayed especially at the failure to quickly evacuate the two tourist areas east and west of Athens as the death toll continued to rise.

Children fell from cliffs to the sea to avoid the flames, families were charred inside their vehicles, and many drowned as the fires swept away even those who were in the sea and the beaches adjacent to the forests.

'It's like being on a sinking ship'

Rescue crews continued Wednesday to search the seaside and forest in Mati, the areas worst affected by the wildfires, to locate further victims. The death toll now stands at 81, with 186 people seriously injured and about 100 people missing.

“It is undoubtedly a national tragedy. There was no evacuation plan. Unfortunately, the Greek Civil Protection Agency is only thinking about the firefighting and not giving enough importance on civil protection and preparation,” Costas Synolakis, a professor of natural disasters in the Technical University of Crete and visiting professor from the University of California, Berkeley, told CNBC.

According to Synolakis, the area burned was laden with anarchic construction, densely populated and surrounded by a pine forest. With winds reaching 50 miles per hour, the fire risk had increased to a Category 4, but the authorities' reaction was not consistent with the high degree of alarm.

To stress the importance of early intervention, Synolakis said that within the first minute, a fire is extinguished with a glass of water, the second minute with a bucket of water, the third with a tank of water, and "after that we do our best."

“There had not been any drill on how to evacuate this area, and no experience for how much time will be needed to safely rescue, for example, 100 people. As a result, even the locals did not know where to go when the fire threatened them. To say it schematically, it's like being on a sinking ship and you do not know where to go to be saved,” Synolakis said.

IMF warned of Greece's decaying infrastructure

But the problems extend much further beyond the Greek authorities' failure to react swiftly to the disaster at hand. The eight years of austerity imposed by the country's international lenders has caused huge problems with public infrastructure and equipment. Although Greece, since 2016, has a budget surplus similar to that of Germany's, reduction of critical expenditures, shrinking public investments and degrading services has led to disrepair.

In late 2016 the IMF warned the Greek authorities that a further reduction in government operating costs would be damaging. Maurice Obstfeld, IMF's Economic Counselor, and Poul M. Thomsen, the Fund's European Department Director had published a joint analysis in which they supported that Greece has resorted to deep cuts in investment and so-called discretionary spending. “It has done so to such a degree that the decaying infrastructure is hampering growth and the delivery of basic public services such as transport and health care being compromised,” IMF officials have warned.

"There had not been any drill on how to evacuate this area, and no experience for how much time will be needed to safely rescue, for example, 100 people. As a result, even the locals did not know where to go when the fire threatened them. To say it schematically, it's like being on a sinking ship and you do not know where to go to be saved." -Costas Synolakis, professor of natural disasters in the Technical University of Crete and visiting professor from the University of California, Berkeley

But the Greek government and the Greek Ministry of Finance did not take into account the relevant recommendations.

Τhe Greek Public Investment Program credits reduced from 9.6 billion euros (US$11.22 billion) in 2008 to just 5,950 billion euros last year (US$6.8 billion). Although the initial Greek Public Investment Program credits were 6,750 billion euros (US$7.8 billion) for 2017, that was eventually decreased by 800 million euros (US$935 million) in order for Greece to overcome the fiscal targets set by its lenders.

As the IMF has predicted, this multiannual saving has led to serious problems for the functioning of public services.

In addition, Greek firefighters are claiming they don't have the proper equipment to fight the flames. The fire trucks, they said, are aged (over 15 years) and are immobilized due to mechanical failures, lack of tires and so on.

“Almost 25 percent of the vehicles are immobilized. It is characteristic that if a tire burst during an operation, it will not be replaced immediately, as no tires are supplied,” the firefighters union said during a briefing. They also presented evidence that three firefighting planes have mechanical problems and there are no parts available to repair them.

A country full of tourists

Thirty-two million tourists are expected to visit the country and the beautiful Greek islands during 2018. In 2017 Greek tourism recorded an increase of 11.4 percent in revenue from abroad compared to 2016. The direct contribution of tourism to Greece’s GDP reached 18.3 billion euros in 2017 (US$21.3 billion), and tourism contributed directly to the 10.3 percent of the country's GDP. These figures reflect that Greece does not have the luxury of losing visitors from events that create a feeling of insecurity. And these incidents are not limited to forest fires.

On Sunday a fire broke out in the historic building of the Italian military barracks in the center of Chania, Crete, in a region full of tourists. The fire spread very quickly and went out of control despite the firefighters’ mobilization and efforts. The building that used to house the War Museum has been completely destroyed. It is suggested that the fire was caused by people who had managed to enter the otherwise sealed building, using it as a housing facility.

Former Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis attributed the destruction of the Chania War Museum to the inertia of Greek bureaucracy and, in particular, to the fact that the Ministry of Defense had to abandon the historic building.

The lack of guarding of public buildings has become an ordinary occurrence in Greece over the last few years and is a major problem.

By Nasos Koukakis, CNBC contributor