Swedish Prime Minister Slammed for Slow Response to Forest Fires

Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, already trailing the opposition before elections next month, is now fighting criticism he failed to grasp the seriousness of Sweden’s worst forest fires on record until it was too late.

The country’s third-biggest newspaper, Svenska Dagbladet, yesterday covered its front page with an attack on Reinfeldt, reminding voters he “waited seven days” before visiting the site of the fires. Dagens Nyheter, Sweden’s biggest newspaper, said Reinfeldt must accept his alleged mishandling of the blaze will “take over the election debate.” The nation’s biggest tabloid, Aftonbladet, said it took a “catastrophe” to make clear Swedish emergency services are inadequate.

“Since the election campaign started on Monday, it’s basically not been about anything else than the fire,” Lars Nord, a professor at Mittuniversitet in Sundsvall, Sweden, said by phone. For Reinfeldt, that’s “a very negative thing.”

Since the fires started on July 31, they’ve consumed thousands of hectares of commercial forest land about 60 miles (100 kilometers) northwest of Stockholm. More than 15,000 hectares of land were engulfed in flames, according to local authorities. Though Sweden is used to tackling smaller blazes most summers, the intensity and high temperatures this year caught emergency forces off guard.

“It seems that there were quite a few things that could have been dealt with differently,” Ulf Bjereld, a professor at Gothenburg University, said by phone. “It’s good that an investigation will look into that.”

Slow Response

Reinfeldt’s slow response to the blaze, which claimed one human life, is set to worsen his chances of making inroads against a Social Democrat-led opposition that has consistently led in most polls by margins as wide as 15 points. Reinfeldt, a 49-year-old economist by training, has lost favor with Sweden’s voters after pushing through five rounds of tax cuts that the opposition argues have eroded the government’s spending base.

The prime minister was beaten to the site of the fires by two days by his opponent, Social Democrat leader Stefan Loefven, who inspected the damage on Aug. 5. The government sent its defense and rural affairs ministers the same day. Sweden’s lack of resources meant the country was also forced to seek aid from the European Union, which sent four aircraft from France and Italy to drop water on the blaze.

“You can’t say they’ve dealt very well with the crisis from a communications point of view,” Nord said. “It’s clear that that’s a liability for those in power, who can be held accountable.”

Business Rebuke

It’s not just Swedish media that are editorializing on Reinfeldt’s inadequate response. Members of the country’s business community have also criticized the lack of preparedness.

AB Karl Hedin, which owns 5,500 hectares of forest in the affected area, may have lost as much as 300 million kronor ($43 million) of wood, it said.

“Normally you don’t have a problem -- these events are solved every year,” the company’s owner, Karl Hedin, said in a phone interview. “But this time they came too late.”

He says “round-the-clock surveillance” will be needed for another month to prevent the fires flaring up again. The area “won’t be safe” until the beginning of September, Hedin said.

The total cost of the fires may be as high as 1 billion kronor, the Federation of Swedish Farmers estimates.

The political cost for Reinfeldt is also likely to be high, according to Nord.

“The odds are looking very dire,” he said.

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