ATHENS, Greece – Fireplaces were long a status symbol for Greece's up-and-coming middle class, like the second car and the flat screen TV. Now, they are increasingly their owners' only defense against the encroaching winter cold.
A steep increase in heating costs has forced many Greeks to switch from heating oil to wood-burning. But the price of using cheaper fuel is growing.
Illegal loggers are slashing through forests already devastated by years of summer wildfires. Air pollution from wood smoke is choking the country's main cities. And there has been an increase in blazes caused by carelessly attended woodstoves.
Three children died in a northern village last month when a fire gutted the home of their grandparents, who had recently changed from oil-fueled central heating to a wooden stove to save money.
In Athens, the capital, officials have warned of severe health risks from the low-lying smog that smothers the city at night, when fireplaces and woodstoves burn at full blast in poorly insulated homes. Greece's leading medical association is demanding urgent action to clean the air. But those warnings have largely been ignored for a simple reason: Burning wood provides the same warmth as heating oil, for roughly half the cost.
For the past three years, the country has been wracked by its worst financial crisis since the end of World War II. Living standards have plummeted, pensions have been slashed and a quarter of the workforce is unemployed, following deeply resented cutbacks demanded in return for international bailouts shielding Greece from total ruin.
The heating crisis was triggered by taxation changes, and made desperate by financial woes. For years, fuel for vehicles was taxed more heavily than heating oil. That encouraged crooked traders to sell heating fuel for use in vehicles and pocket the difference.
Hoping to boost faltering revenues and foil tax fraud, the government this year harmonized taxes on vehicle fuel and heating oil, which now costs about 40 percent more than last winter, although lower-income residents of colder areas get a rebate. Critics say the move backfired due to a drastic decline in sales.
"The fact that the price of petrol has greatly increased, while incomes are shrinking to an unbearable extent, creates a vast problem with heating in Greece," said lawmaker Thomas Psyrras from the Democratic Left party — a junior partner in Greece's conservative-led coalition government. "People who live abroad imagine that we have sunshine all year round, but that's not the case."
Temperatures have dropped below freezing in much of the country this winter, while snow fell in central Athens this month.
Stratos Paradias, head of the Hellenic Property Federation that represents property owners, says many city dwellers have been left without any central heating. "There are some who are completely unable to pay the costs due to the crisis," he said.
But even those who can afford oil, or the slightly cheaper natural gas, can be left shivering, due to the communal nature of each apartment block's central heating. It means that if enough owners want to go without, their decision is binding for all residents.
While electric heating is another option, most consumers perceive wood as cheaper — especially since household power bills are set to increase about 10 percent this year.
It's hard to estimate how many people have abandoned heating oil for wood. Distributors say sales of heating oil are nearly 80 percent down this winter, and new firewood yards have mushroomed all over Athens.
"I used to have the only shop with firewood around here, now another four have opened this year," said Grigoris Athanassakis, who has sold firewood for the past 15 years in the Athens district of Tavros.
"What's unprecedented this year is that we started selling firewood in August," he said. "People were terrified at the coming rise in fuel prices, and rushed to get their supplies in early."
Costas Tsakoyiannis, who runs a yard on a busy highway near a central cemetery, says he's seen a 20 percent rise in demand this season.
"It used to be middle class people who bought firewood, but now it's much more widespread," he said. "Many who only had fireplaces in their flats for decoration now use them for heating, others have bought woodstoves."
The heating crisis has spawned some ingenious solutions, such as stoves in northern Greece that burn fuel as unlikely as peach stones and olive pits.
Officials say all the wood smoke poses a considerable public health risk. The state Center for Disease Control & Prevention warned that a single fireplace emits 30 times more dust particles than oil-burning central heating for 25 flats.
The problem gets much worse when instead of firewood people burn salvaged wood or broken-up furniture that contains noxious varnishes or synthetic coatings.
A University of Thessaloniki study found that the concentration of fine particles in the air of the country's second-largest city was on average twice the safety level from mid-November to mid-December 2012 — and considerably higher than a year earlier. Fine dust is particularly dangerous as it seeps deep into the lungs, potentially causing respiratory problems.
The Thessaloniki study estimated that the increase in pollution would lead to an extra €40 million ($52 million) burden in public health costs.
In Athens, the crisis had initially helped to improve air quality as high gasoline costs discouraged the use of private transport. That changed this winter, as people rushed to buy firewood — and the immediate outlook is bleak.
"We expect that as temperatures go down in January and February use of fireplaces will increase and the phenomenon will rise," said Evangelos Gerassopoulos, research director at the National Observatory.
The Environment Ministry said this month that while the smog "creates a serious problem for public health ... at this point the situation is not so acute as to allow taking emergency measures."
The Athens Medical Association, however, responded with an urgent appeal for action.
"We can't wait any longer," it said in a statement. "We have enough cancers in our country. The cost of treating people sickened from the effects of the smog will be much greater than that of (fully) subsidizing natural gas and heating oil."
The government has ruled out an expansion of the current heating oil rebate system. Meanwhile, the vast appetite for wood has encouraged extensive illegal logging — by local residents for private use but also by organized gangs. Reports of clandestinely-felled trees have come in even from the suburbs of Athens and a town park in central Greece.
Forestry services, hit so severely by cutbacks that they sometimes lack enough gasoline for car patrols, face the daunting task of policing some 6.4 million hectares (16 million acres) of forest.
Georgios Amorgianniotis, a secretary for forests at the environment ministry, said illegal logging only became a serious problem during the crisis.
He said legal actions against clandestine loggers doubled in 2012 compared to the year before, although that's partly due to stricter policing. In the area of Mount Olympus, mythical home of the ancient Greek gods, 300 people were arrested last year for illegal logging — a five-fold increase from before the 2009 eruption of Greece's crisis.
In 2011, officials confiscated more than 6,500 tons of illegally-cut firewood. That number doubled last year to 13,100 tons while more than 400 vehicles were impounded.
Forestry workers have even been attacked by illegal loggers wielding axes or guns.
After a shooting incident last year, a foresters' union weighed in with this judgment: "It's clearly turning into a Far West-style situation."
Costas Kantouris in Thessaloniki contributed.