The 2001 fire season in Greece has started quite early this year. After an unusual fire on 1 May 2001 at the foot of Parnis Mountain, which, in spite of the fact that the grass was still green claimed 20 ha of forest due to high winds, a serious fire burned about 2000 ha in a few hours on 4 June 2001.
Monday, 4 June was the last day of an “extended” weekend, as it is a religious holiday. Hundreds of thousands of people had fled Athens to the countryside and the beaches nearby, as the temperature had climbed in the mid-30oC, which is not usual this early in the summer. This fact, combined with low relative humidity (mid 20s) and the passage of a cold front that was expected to bring high winds brought the fire danger at high levels. The Fire Service was put on alert, and within Monday it managed to control all 78 fires that erupted, but one.
The fire that escaped initial attack was started at 14:20, due to negligence (according to the first Fire Service accounts), in northeastern Attica, close to the National Road that connects Athens with northern Greece. Initial attack with two fire trucks failed as the fire moved quickly, fanned by gusty SW-W winds that reached 35 knots. These winds did not allow the Canadair aircraft from the base in Elefsis to take-off, so other Canadairs from distant airports had to be dispatched. Initially much of the vegetation was Pinus halepensis regeneration, mixed with grassy areas, olive trees with grassy understory, and occasional shrub fields. The fire covered a distance of about 15 km in three hours, practically unobstructed by the firefighting forces. Although many fire trucks from Athens started being dispatched immediately, the large number of legal and illegal houses, and many villages that lied in the path of the fire (in order, Sikaminos, Oropos, Milesi, Markopoulo, Kalamos) absorbed much of the firefighting effort in trying to protect people and structures.
The fire reached the area of Kalamos by 17:30. By that time the number of fire trucks was already high, and many water tanks from local authorities in Attica had also been mobilized. The total number of fire trucks exceeded 100 by 20:00, manned with 500 Fire Service firefighters, plus volunteers and 250 soldiers.
In the area of Kalamos, where some of the last remaining tall Pinus halepensis forest in Attica was in danger the firefighting forces, between 18:00 and 21:00 battled the front of a difficult crown fire with the help of six Canadair water bombers (that finally arrived) and a heavy-lift contracted MI-26 helicopter. They managed to delay the fire front, until the wind, which in the meantime had changed to NW, started to calm down. Firefighting efforts continued through the night and with the help of more Canadairs on the morning of 5 June the fire was fully controlled.
A new German-built firefighting vehicle, based on a Leopard tank with a 20-ton water capacity, was demonstrated / tested for the first time on this fire.
Initial estimates of the burned area are about 2000 ha. About 30-40 homes suffered significant damage. Seven of them burned completely. The fire restarted public discussions about the wisdom of passing the responsibility of forest firefighting from the Forest Service to the Fire Service in 1998. It also brought even more emphasis to the message of the authorities to the citizens to do preventive work (mainly vegetation clearing) around their summer/vacation homes in order to protect themselves and their homes in case of similar events.
Fig.1. An approximate outline of the final burned area
By Dr. Gavriil Xanthopoulos
Forester Forest Fire Specialist