by Nektaria Stamouli and Stelios Bouras
EGALEO, Greece—While patrolling on a recent cold night, environmentalist Grigoris Gourdomichalis caught a young man illegally chopping down a tree on public land in the mountains above Athens.
When confronted, the man broke down in tears, saying he was unemployed and needed the wood to warm the home he shares with his wife and four small children, because he could no longer afford heating oil.
“It was a tough choice, but I decided just to let him go” with the wood, said Mr. Gourdomichalis, head of the locally financed Environmental Association of Municipalities of Athens, which works to protect forests around Egaleo, a western suburb of the capital.
Tens of thousands of trees have disappeared from parks and woodlands this winter across Greece, authorities said, in a worsening problem that has had tragic consequences as the crisis-hit country’s impoverished residents, too broke to pay for electricity or fuel, turn to fireplaces and wood stoves for heat.
As winter temperatures bite, that trend is dealing a serious blow to the environment, as hillsides are denuded of timber and smog from fires clouds the air in Athens and other cities, posing risks to public health.
The number of illegal logging cases jumped in 2012, said forestry groups, while the environment ministry has lodged more than 3,000 lawsuits and seized more than 13,000 tons of illegally cut trees.
Such woodcutting was last common in Greece during Germany’s brutal occupation in the 1940s, underscoring how five years of recession and waves of austerity measures have spawned drastic measures.
Smog, on some days visible to the naked eye and carrying the distinct smell of burning wood, has prompted local officials in Athens to discuss mitigation strategies, including proposals to restore heating-oil subsidies.
On Christmas Day, Greece’s environment ministry said, particulate in the air over one of Athens’s biggest suburbs, Maroussi, was so bad that it was more than two times the European Union’s acceptable air-pollution standards.
“The average Greek will throw anything into the fireplace that can be burned, ranging from old furniture with lacquer, to old books with ink, in order to get warm,” said Stefanos Sapatakis, an environmental-health officer at the Hellenic Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
He said the smog could affect vulnerable groups, including the elderly, children and people with asthma. He likened the air conditions in Athens to an instance in postwar London where smog from wood fires blanketed the city for five days in December 1953, contributing to the deaths of more than 4,000 people and leading British authorities to ban the use of fireplaces in the city.
In northern Greece, where climatic conditions in winter are closer to those in continental Europe than the Mediterranean, the struggle to stay warm amid government cutbacks is forcing tough choices on local municipalities. In late December, one of Greece’s teachers’ associations warned that many schools, particularly in the north, could soon be forced to suspend lessons because there was no money to heat classrooms.
In Orestiada, a town located along the shared Greek, Turkish and Bulgarian border, the local swimming team travels two or three times a week to neighboring Turkey to train, after the town’s mayor had to choose between heating local schools or the swimming pool. In a sign of solidarity with their fellow athletes, the Turkish swimming club of nearby Edirne invited the Orestiada youth to practice at its installations free of charge.
The struggle to stay warm has also had tragic consequences. In early December, in the northern Greek village of Mesoropi, three siblings age 5, 7 and 15 were found dead after a fire broke out from a wood stove their family was using to heat the house. The fire had spread quickly during the night, causing parts of the house to collapse and trapping the children as they slept. The family had 10 children.
The incident shocked Greece and was quickly latched on to by the opposition Syriza party, which opposes the country’s austerity program that has led to higher costs for heating fuel and increased electricity tariffs.
Syriza spokesman Panos Skourlitis said the austerity program is forcing Greece and Greeks to choose among “either getting burned by wood stoves, or destroying the forests, or living in a cloud of smog.”
Write to Nektaria Stamouli at email@example.com and Stelios Bouras at firstname.lastname@example.org
A version of this article appeared January 12, 2013, on page A9 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Greeks Raid Forests in Search of Wood to Heat Homes.