In 1830, approximately 50% of Greece’s total area was covered by forests while today forest lands have been diminished to less than 18%. Wildland fires always constituted the most serious threat for the Greek forests. Although the coastal forests of Pinus halepensis and Pinus brutia and the degraded natural ecosystems of evergreen sclerophyl brush (maquis vegetation) are well adapted to fire, nevertheless, frequent and repeated fires and subsequent overgrazing denude the land from the vegetation cover, thus exposing it to the intense autumn rains which cause soil depletion and erosion, the main impediments to restoration of prefire vegetation.
During the decade 1960-69, 7,240 fires burned 123,779 ha of forest land. In the next decade (1970-79), although the total number of fires remained the same (7,354), however, the total area burned was almost doubled (203,790 ha). In the last decade (1980-89) there occurred almost twice as many fires (12,635) and total area burned (524,167 ha) than in the previous two decades. The average fire size increased from 17 ha in the 60’s to 20 ha in the 70’s and to 39 ha in the 80’s. This is particularly disappointing since from 1974 the Greek Forest Service was equipped with the state-of-the-art means of forest firefighting, including firefighting aircraft. Presently, Greece has 13 CL-215, 24 PZL-M18, and 3 C-130 forest firefighting aircraft, a fleet which is comparable to other European country’s aerial suppression capabilities. Fire presupression expenditures boosted from 11 million drachmas in 1970 to 4 billion drachmas in 1990 (a ratio of 1:400).
This could be explained by a close look to the fire causes: Only 3% of the total number of fires which occur in Greece are due to natural causes, 29% of the fires are documented due to arson, 30% are caused by negligence, while 38% are attributed to unknown causes. Considering that a great proportion of the “unknown” fires can be attributed to arson, it is safe to assume that over half the total number of fires that occur in Greece are due to arsonists. Most of the large fires are identified as arsons (in Greece, only 5% of the total number of fires are responsible for the 70% of the total area burned). Since Greece lacks nationwide land ownership and utilization maps, many of the burned forest lands are subsequently misappropriated and occupied by the arsonists and converted to agricultural or grazing land or used for housing construction development. It is characteristic that most cases of arson occur in coastal forests at areas of high population density, increased land value, and touristically popular during the summer. Revenge, political unrest, and pasture improvement are also causes of arson in Greece. Due to the nature of the arsonists motives, strict legislation and a series of socio-economic measures (including the creation of land utilization and ownership maps nationwide) could be most efficient in drastically eliminating the forest fire problem in Greece.
From: Alexander P. Dimitrakopoulos Address: Department of Environmental Sciences University of the Aegean Mytilini, Greece