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Last Updated: Monday, 3 December 2007, 10:37 GMT
Greek lives scarred by inferno
By Panos Polyzoidis
BBC News, Peloponnese, Greece

Hill of Kronos
The bare Hill of Kronos rises behind Olympia's ancient ruins
The scorched Hill of Kronos at ancient Olympia stands as a symbol of the inferno that swept across southern Greece in August.

The Greek government plans to replant the hill in time for the lighting of the Olympic torch at Olympia next March, ahead of the Beijing Games. The reforestation is expected to begin this week.

The hill is surrounded by ruined temples and the ancient stadium where the first Olympic Games were held in 776BC.

The site will not return to its pre-inferno glory for years - probably not until the ignition of the Olympic Torch in 2012 for the London Olympics, according to Greece's Institute of Forestry Research.

Olympia's mayor Giorgos Aidonis told the BBC that some tree species that grew there in ancient times would be planted, along with pine trees, which had covered the hill before the fire. Over the centuries the pines had replaced the old trees, which were mentioned in ancient texts.

Economic ruin

At least 67 people died in the fires, which destroyed about 1,000 houses and 1,100 other buildings. Hundreds more were badly damaged.

The government has earmarked 150m euros (107m; $222m) to help people rebuild their homes and other buildings.

Home gutted by fire
Many homes were gutted by fire in the Peloponnese

It will take years for communities in Ileia, the worst-hit region in the Peloponnese, to recover.

Thodoris Mantzavinos, 66, a local olive farmer, says the damage to agriculture is so huge that it can never be adequately compensated for. "And that in an area where no-one had ever lost an animal due to natural disasters in living memory," he adds.

Farmers here say that young olive trees will take at least five years to begin yielding a harvest again.

Families who lost their houses are staying with friends, in emergency housing or hotels paid for by the regional government.

The housing situation seems to be under control, but the main worry for people in the area is their economic future.

The fires - at times more than 200 burning simultaneously - destroyed 4.15 million olive trees in Ileia, wiping out the region's main crop. Pasture land was 80% destroyed and 20,000 animals were killed.

Work is under way to protect the affected areas from floods, but a University of Athens study has flagged up a serious threat of winter landslides.

Bureaucratic woes

Mayor Aidonis says his council is still awaiting state funds to help cover the extra costs inflicted by the fires.

Greece map
Ileia's fire victims hope there will be no repetition of what they describe as administrative chaos when the immediate emergency relief benefit of 3,000 euros was distributed.

Along with those affected by the disaster some people who were not eligible queued outside local government offices, false paperwork in hand, and some of them managed to receive the 3,000-euro handout. At least 15 were prosecuted for fraud.

Assisted by the EU, the Greek government has organised relief for businesses hit by the disaster.

Farmers are due to receive payments which will continue until their farms generate income again.

The agriculture ministry will also support them with animal feed, while the economy ministry has arranged long grace periods for the repayment of bank debts.

Development plans

Local authorities are seeking alternative income to make up for the agricultural losses.

Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis (far left) inspecting Hill of Kronos, 22 Sep 07
The fires have given re-elected PM Karamanlis (far left) an urgent task
Pantazis Chronopoulos, the mayor of Zaharo, another area severely hit by the wildfires, signed a deal with the central government to develop a 250-hectare coastal zone for tourism.

Environmental groups and opposition political parties immediately cried foul.

But Mr Chronopoulos accuses critics of neglecting the needs of local people and their economic well-being.

Historically, existing forest conservation policies have been only partially implemented, with developers and small landowners finding loopholes that allowed them to build in the woods.

The government was quick to react to the widespread suspicions that destroyed forest land would soon be turned over to houses, villas and tourist developments. "Wherever there were woods, there will be woods again," said Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis.

"This is the greatest environmental disaster the country has seen since World War II," says George Keramitzoglou, environment correspondent for Athens's Skai Radio.

"Restoring the ecosystems that have been hit will take at least a decade, and that can only be achieved if specific policies are put in place to protect Greece's forests."

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