ATHENS, Greece (AP) -- 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 led 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.