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22 Aug 12

Mountain Rescue

Dimiter Kenarov

The wildfire on Mount Vitosha broke out just as the fire of the protest movement, down in dusty Sofia, was slowly dying.

For nearly two weeks in June, the streets of the city had been aflame with anger, with thousands of young people protesting against an amended forestry law which would have allowed unchecked development in mountain areas.

Vitosha, the dome-shaped mountain resting next to Sofia like a guardian whale, would have been one of the first victims of that law. An off-shore company had already made plans to construct a giant ski resort there, greatly expanding the current one.

The protesters achieved their aim. Compelled by popular opposition to the changes, the president of Bulgaria vetoed the law and returned it to parliament for another round of negotiations.

Sofia was jubilant. Twenty-two years of apathy had followed the collapse of the totalitarian regime. At last, people had come together for their rights. There was talk in the papers about the rebirth of community and social responsibility. And then… the fire.

Nobody knew how it started, but thick smoke was rising over the mountain, showering ashes over the city. By destroying the forest, the flames threatened to do what the off-shore company had failed to achieve.

The mood turned sombre. Not only the political oligarchy, but nature itself seemed to oppose democracy.

What happened in the next few days was nothing short of a miracle. Seeing the inadequacy of the fire-fighting efforts and the disorganization of government agencies, hundreds of volunteers from Sofia flocked to Mount Vitosha, carrying shovels, picks, and buckets. Residents organized themselves on Twitter and Facebook, or just showed up at the headquarters of the fire department.

Not only were people willing not only to go out in the street and risk arrest, they were willing to risk life and limb to protect their last public resource. Whatever the critics said, people cared.

I also joined as a volunteer and contributed my small share to the fire-fighting efforts. Working on my BIRN article about environmentalism and the rebirth of civil society in Bulgaria, here was further evidence to support my original argument. The smiling, soot-covered faces of volunteers who had helped put out the fire said as much as any quote.

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