By end of August 1990 a disastrous wildfire struck the autonomous monastic district of Athos which occupies the easternmost prong of the Chalcidice peninsula (Northeast Greece). For more than one week the monks, forest workers, fire brigades and the miltary tried to suppress the fire. Due to the extended drought conditions and the difficult terrain it was a hopeless effort. Since the CANADAIR scooping airplanes were not able to join the fire battle continuously, mainly because of rough sea state and steepness of terrain, the Government of Greece asked the Federal Republic of Germany for aerial forest fire suppression support.
This request was made in the morning of 24 August. On the next day a German C 160 Transall miltary transport plane took off for Greece. The plane was boarded by the aerial fire fighting coordinator and four helibuckets (capacity 5,000 l). The first two CH 53 G helicopters followed soon. On the way to Greece the helicopters had to fly over Austria and via Yugoslavia and arrived at Thessaloniki in the evening of 26 August. On 27 August, in coordination with the scooping planes, the first helicopter-borne fire suppression tasks started. Three additional CH 53 G, the heaviest helicopter available in the German Armed Forces, arrived on the scene on 28 August. They became available at the moment when the scooping planes were not able to operate anymore due to the adverse weather conditions.
The aerial fire suppression was successfully terminated in the evening of 30 August. However, the helicopters were available on stand-by until 1 September. Alltogether the German military personnel (totaling 45 persons) was able to fly 344 fire suppression tasks (45 flying hours) and delivered 1.72 million liters of water on the fire scene.
Fig.1. German Armed Forces CH-53G in joint fire fighting operations with the Greek Armed Forces Bell UHD helicopters. Photo: Courtesy LtCol K.Zernia
The Mount Athos fire has destroyed very valuable pristine forest resources. And a recent report from the site revealed that severe erosion has occurred, even leading to the formation of a new sand bank along the shore. However, things could have been much worse if the fire fighting capabilities had not been enforced by the helicopters requested from Germany. There are many lessons to learn from that fire. One lesson is that a difficult terrain such as on Mount Athos requires a variety of fire extinguishing means among which the helicopters are very efficient, especially in situation in which fixed wing fire planes and scoopers are not operational any longer.
Another lesson is that such international efforts in fire disaster control may become mandatory in order to protect the common heritage of our natural and cultural resources. However, in order to be prepared better for unforeseen events, such as the Mount Athos fire, bilateral and multinational agreements could ensure that European forest fire fighting capabilties could be used in a more efficient way.
Aerial Coordination Officer of the German Helicopter Group at the Mount Athos Fire Fliegende Abteilung 151 Schüttdorfer Damm 1 e D-4400 Rheine Germany