Wood-burning stoves all the rage in austerity Greece

ATHENS Wed Nov 23, 2011 1:52pm EST

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ATHENS (Reuters) - Once a symbol of poverty, the lowly wood burning stove is making a comeback among cash-strapped Greeks horrified by the soaring costs of central heating as winter begins.

Even the wealthiest Greeks are turning to the kind of basic heating methods that most people haven't used in decades as an economic crisis deepens, taxes rise and temperatures drop.

Costas Mitsionis who sells wood-burning stoves at the central Athens Monastiraki market, rubs his hands with glee as he talks about the doubled demand for his product. His tiny shop is bursting at the seams with stoves in all colors and shapes precariously piled on top of one another almost to the ceiling.

"Business is up 100 percent," said Mitsionis, 42, constantly interrupted by phone calls from clients. "Everybody is flocking to buy, poor and rich alike -- this crisis has put the fear of God into everyone."

In a desperate move to plug its fiscal holes and meet its budget targets under an EU/IMF bailout, the government has hiked energy taxes, driving heating oil costs up to 40 percent higher.

In addition, a flurry of taxes due this fall, including a property levy slapped on electricity bills and a one-off "solidarity" income tax, means many cash-strapped families are facing hundreds or even thousands of euros in extra bills in the first months of winter.

This is when Greeks, most of whom live in apartment buildings, must pay to fill the diesel-fired boilers for the building's central heating. Many residents are declining to pay their share of the heating oil bill, forcing building managers to cancel or slash orders to a minimum.

"I have switched off the central heating and use nothing but the stove instead," said Theodora Doukiri, 39, a cleaning lady in Athens. Her husband was fired from his retail job a few months ago and the whole family depends on her wages of 1,000 euros a month to make ends meet.

"There's no way I could afford heating oil. Now I'm spending just 60 euros a month on wood and the house is like an oven," she added.

With many following her example, building managers are often putting central heating on for just 2-3 hours, usually in the evening, if at all. The rest of the day each family is left to fend for itself, using electric heaters, air conditioners or wood stoves to heat their immediate surroundings.

"People used to heat their houses but now they're just trying to warm their feet," said Mary Lardi, who runs a fuel supply service to residential customers. "We've been in business since 1974 and things have never been so bad."

BURNING ISSUE

It's hard to avoid talk of this latest national obsession, with one web site luring Internet surfers by offering heating oil coupons as prizes and a recent TV talk show interviewing Greeks in their 20s on how they manage to live in apartments without any heating.

For a lot of people, wood seems the most attractive alternative option for providing cheap heat.

Stoves that can warm 50 square metres of space are on sale for about 250 euros ($330). Some 1.5 tonnes of firewood, which can get an average household through three months of winter, costs about 260 euros, compared with about 1,000 euros for heating oil over the same period.

"That's a good deal, even rich households in Athens's posh seaside suburbs have increased orders," said Tasos Mitropoulos, who runs a firewood business near Athens.

The government also added its own fuel to the wood-burning fire on Nov 8 when it lifted a ban on the household use of pellets, a type of wood fuel made from compacted sawdust.

Government officials in northern Greece say foresters are selling firewood at discount prices to help poor villagers in remote areas and imports from neighboring Bulgaria have soared.

But there is also a backlash on environment as increased wood consumption seems to be boosting illegal logging and pollution, officials and environmentalists said.

"Police recently arrested five illegal logging squads in just one swoop," said Costas Voliotis, who lives near Pelion, central Greece, one of the country's most richly forested mountains.

Three big cities in the country's colder north, Larisa, Volos and Thessaloniki, have also reported higher pollution levels this week and increased smog has been reported in some parts of Athens.

"We stopped hanging our laundry outside - it's getting dark from all the soot," said Vassilis Tozios, 36, an accountant who lives in the working class district of Kolonos.

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