MACEDONIA – The summer of 2021 proved to be one of the worst in decades, with wildfires devastating forests, houses and tourist areas in Turkey, Greece, Albania, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. These Balkan nations suffered greatly, with hundreds injured and, unfortunately, several deaths during wildfires in July and August 2021. This once again shined a light on the extreme negligence and lack of responsibility Balkan governments’ that neglect the adequate funding and support of civil protection departments responsible for aerial firefighting. These government sectors are constantly left with limited budgets insufficient for building, maintaining and providing needed upgrades to systems that would rapidly respond and effectively battle summer wildfires. In such scenarios, the aerial firefighting assets remain the key for prompt and efficient solving of domestic and international wildfire threats before they escalate into national-level disasters.
A significant point in the criticism aimed at the Balkan nation government is the lack of proper funds allocation, which allows the ongoing maintenance of state-owned aerial firefighting assets. This year, as was the case in Macedonia, the absence of proper funds left three highly-capable Air Tractor AT-802A Fire Boss aircraft unserviceable in the middle of the peak summer fire season. Overnight, this decision turned the nation from a proven, decades-long example for self-sustainability in battling wildfires into a government on its knees begging for international aid to assist in providing aerial firefighting assistance. Meanwhile, the country suffered tens of millions of dollars in damages, including forested areas that will take between 30-50 years to return to pre-fire growth.
From National Celebration to a State of Crisis
The Macedonia holiday of “Llinden,” which means “The Day of the Republic,” is a major national holiday celebrated on August 2 of each year. The holiday commemorates two significant events in Macedonian history: the establishment of the statehood of the Balkan nation, which took place on the same date, and the Ilinden Uprising of 1903 against the Ottoman Empire, the First Anti-fascist Assembly for the national liberation of Macedonia. A 1944 political gathering laid the foundation of the Socialistic Republic of Macedonia within the borders of the now non-existent Yugoslavia during World War II.
This year’s events began with nationwide celebrations. They ended with Macedonia entering its worst wildfire crisis since the catastrophic fires in August of 2007. The nation finally recognized the need to activate the Macedonian Air Force’s (Makedonsko Voeno Vozduhoplovstvo) three Russian Mi-17 Helicopters and four Mi-8MT helicopters. Even combined with the air force’s primary operations, it would not be capable of suppressing wildfires regularly burning in forested areas without the support of state-owned and operated fixed-wing aerial firefighting assets and an international assistance plan when needed. Following the lead of nations like Croatia, Montenegro and Cyprus, that each purchased US-made Air Tractor AT-802 firefighting aircraft after the 2007 wildfires, Macedonia also opted for the extremely capable 800 gallon (3,028 litres) water bomber, buying three float-configured Fire Boss aircraft in March 2009 which went in operation in June 2010.
With its competent FireBoss fleet left unserviceable in the middle of a summer season due to repeated public procurement complications, and only three Mi-8MT/17 helicopters available for firefighting missions, Macedonia this year found itself in a much worse crisis than in 2007. A “déjà vu” moment occurred on August 2 this year when the national celebrations were abruptly cut short as weeks of high temperatures combined with strong winds, and a lightning storm produced a massive wildfire that started on a mountain above Kočani, a small city located 43 miles (70 km) southeast of the capital of Skopje.
The city was encircled by fire from three sides by midnight, engulfing numerous houses along the mountain slope. As panic began to spread among locals via social networks, many implored local authorities to launch the Air Tractor fleet to fight the fires and save Kočani. Faced with enormous public pressure, government officials shocked the nation by admitting that its firefighting planes would remain grounded at the Skopje International Airport for the entire summer because their scheduled maintenance (worth around 400,000 Euro) was not completed. Repeated complications with the public procurement process causing an avalanche of public condemnation and anger.
After much hard work on the ground throughout the night, the Kočani fires were brought under control. However, the morning of August 3 faced Macedonia with the sad and ugly reality that the nation was entering into a more dangerous fire season than they met in 2007, this time without the air support the country was accustomed to. Without the ability to count on its Air Tractor fleet, Macedonia was left to rely on an aerial Russian-made firefighting fleet with the occasional backup of two ageing police helicopters, one which was mainly used for transportation.
The wildfire crisis escalated again on August 3, as the week-long heatwave continued unabated, igniting many wildfires across Macedonia. The fires reached out of control status despite the Air Force helicopter’s efforts against the very poorly equipped ground firefighting units. Faced with a worsening crisis, the government in Skopje mobilized the Army to fight the fires, imposing a complete ban on movement in forest areas while at the same time requesting international aid for aerial and ground firefighting assets. Ultimately, declaring a 30-days nationwide state of emergency on August 5.
Macedonian-Serbian Aerial Firefighting Mutual Aid
The first nation to respond to Macedonian appeals for assistance was neighbouring Serbia. After a telephone call between political leaders of both countries on August 2, an order was issued to the Serbian Ministry of Interior (Ministarstvo Unutrašnjih Poslova – MUP) to deploy four helicopters to the neighbouring nation. The contingent of five helicopters, including a lead aircraft, the MUP’s newest, an Airbus H145M, carrying Serbian interior minister Aleksandar Vulin departed Belgrade on August 3, arriving at Macedonia’s Skopje international airport the same day.
Serbia’s contribution to the wildfire fight included a pair of AB-212s, an Airbus H145M, and a SOKO SA-342 Gazelle, all initially assigned to a Serbian police aviation unit at Belgrade’s Nikola Tesla international airport.
The Serbian contingent of helicopters began their operations on August 4, flying in formations led by the Macedonian Air Force’s Mi-18/17s equipped with SEI Industries Bambi Bucket systems capable of dropping 660 gallons (2,500 litres.) The Serbian contingent of helicopters carried smaller capacity buckets appropriate to their aircraft size; the AB-212 carried a 300 gallon (1,200 litres) bucket. The H145M worked with a 200 gallon (800 litres) Bambi Bucket, while the Gazelle helicopter was used for aerial assessment, guidance, liaison and transport roles during the operation.
The first day of operations saw Serbia’s contingent of helicopters extinguishing wildfires near the village of Drenok, in the vicinity of the famous Kokino megalithic observatory, some 24 miles (40 km) north-east of the Skopje airport. The crews dropped more than 5800 gallons (22,000 litres) of water on the fire during this operation. The following three days, the helicopters were redirected to the far east of Macedonia, where devastating fires were raging in the pine forests between the cities of Berovo and Pehčevo, near the Macedonian-Bulgarian border, 65 miles (105 km) southeast of Skopje airport.