The 1998 forest fire season in Greece has been far from usual and certainly most controversial. What made it so different was a decision by the Greek government to transfer the responsibility of forest firefighting from the Forest Service to the Fire Service. The decision was taken at the end of 1997 and it was mainly a political one. It was prompted by what was considered poor results of the Forest Service in the previous years and did not really consider in depth all the parameters of the undertaking. Actually, it lacked any serious scientific justification or planning.
During winter and spring of 1998 there were many voices that warned about an oncoming disaster. They included a number of politicians, the representatives of Forest Service personnel of all levels, the Department of Forestry and Natural Environment of the University of Thessaloniki, and the few forest fire experts in the country who had not been given any opportunity to offer their input.
The law about the transfer of responsibility to the Fire Service finally took effect on 25 May 1998. That left very little time to the Fire Service to seriously prepare itself for the challenge. At the same time, it had become evident that no provision had been made for cooperation between the personnel of the Forest and the Fire Services at all levels. The Fire Service officers, who had been contributing in the past to forest firefighting, mainly close to urban areas and most often from paved roads, never having command on forest fire incidents, believed they knew all they needed. The significant difference between wildfires and the other types of fires they had been trained for (industrial, structural and ship fires etc.) was not obvious to them.
June was relatively moist and hence quiet, with no significant fires, facilitating the transfer of the Forest Service fire trucks and other equipment to the Fire Service. It also provided the necessary time for the Fire Service to hire seasonal firefighters in addition to its permanent personnel. Many lower rank employees of the Forest Service, mainly firefighters, reaching approximately 20% of all its personnel, were also transferred to the Fire Service.
The problems started on 4 July, early in the afternoon, with the passage of a dry cold front that was accompanied by very strong winds (7 Beaufort scale) and the typical in such cases wind shift. The front followed four days of lull, low humidity and extremely high temperatures which had reached 44 degrees Celsius in many parts of the country including Athens. To the surprise of the Fire Service, which did not have a fire danger prediction capability in place, more than 100 fires erupted within an hour in various parts of the country. About 20% of these fires started from burning garbage dumps, most of them illegal, close to forest lands. The wind picked up burning embers which found easily ignitable fuels where they landed. Simultaneously fires that had been burning slowly for days took off. Attica, the area around Athens, was hit the worst. All Fire Service units in Attica practically got engaged in forest firefighting and did the best they could. Unfortunately, the extreme conditions on one hand and the inadequate preparation of the Fire Service (e.g. lack of significant forest firefighting training and experience, lack of knowledge of the forest road network and fuels distribution, poor understanding of the correct use of aerial firefighting means, lack of well trained and equipped crews with hand tools), resulted in a large number of fires escaping initial attack, becoming large, and in many cases reaching urban-wildland interface areas.
The wind lasted at its peak for only a few hours, so by the end of the next day all fires were controlled. However, the problems had already become evident. By that time more than 10,000 ha had burned. Two civilians had been caught by the fires at different locations and perished and a third one died due to respiratory problems. Approximately 50 houses were destroyed in six different areas. One fire truck was destroyed but the crew, fortunately, managed to escape.
What followed was a preview of the rest of the fire season. Fire Service officers quickly established a belief that all fires were part of a plan against them and against the new law. Forestry people, on the other hand, insisted publicly that the Fire Service was clearly inadequate. The mass media presented and often over-emphasized this disagreement. Relations became very tense and good cooperation between Forest and Fire Service personnel was rarely the case. Even at that moment no corrective measures were taken.
A fifteen day period with average fire activity followed. Many fires erupted and were contained at relatively small sizes but few of them exceeded 2000 ha in size. One more fire truck was destroyed and at least two firefighters suffered injuries. During this time, it became evident that too much firefighting was carried out using the 15 Canadair CL-215 waterbombers of the country, and too many controlled fires were not moped-up and guarded properly so they started again with the onset of winds or as humidity decreased in the middle of the day. This latter phenomenon increased the belief of the Fire Service that arsonists “were starting again the fires they had just put out”. This statement could, of course, not be disputed with any proof, but it could not be supported either, as there was no experience on forest fire investigation in the Fire Service.
Then, as is common in the summer in Greece, the first serious “meltemi” type winds (seasonal 7-8 Beaufort scale northeastern winds that last for 3-4 days) came. Arriving on 22 July 1998, they caused a new round of large wildfires. This time the destruction was much larger as the winds persisted for many days and they were combined with low relative humidity. One of these fires, that erupted among houses on 22 July on mount Ymettos next to Athens, destroyed a number of houses, burned a few private cars and tragically killed three firefighters and one volunteer firefighter. Their fire truck, which they had abandoned, remained practically intact at a short distance from the point where their bodies were found. It was full of water and it is quite clear that if they had stayed in the truck they would have survived. The results of the Fire Service investigation on the incident have not been publicly announced.
In the first days of August the situation became even worse, mainly in central and southern Greece, with many fires becoming large and burning for many days. Ilia, a prefecture in western Peloponnese where ancient Olympia is, was hit the worst. Most of the forests there burned, reaching a total of more than 20,000 ha within that prefecture. Fortunately, ancient Olympia and its surrounding forest was saved. Another long lasting fire burned most of the Pinus nigra forest on mount Taygetos near Sparta in Peloponnese, an area of great ecological importance. Close to that, in Messinia, another large fire claimed two more citizen lives on 5 August, while a less intense but hard-to-fight fire on the steep slopes of mount Olympos in Macedonia kept burning for more than 18 days. However, most attention was caught by a disastrous fire at the outskirts of Athens. The fire started at 22:00 on 2 August at the village of Stamata northeast of Athens under calm conditions. It was not attacked effectively through the night, so next morning, when winds picked up, it accelerated, crowned in Aleppo pine (Pinus halepensis) forest and started spotting. It continued for four days, burning more than 7500 ha, causing unbelievable disaster and practically entering some suburbs of Athens. This fire destroyed the forest that had remained on the mountain of Penteli after the 6200 ha fire there in 1995, and reburned most of the previously burned area diminishing the probability for natural regeneration of Aleppo pine there due to lack of seed. Hundreds of houses and other buildings (hospitals, restaurants, factories, a school, etc.) were destroyed or suffered significant damage. A 67-year old man who lived in the village of Penteli at the base of Penteli mountain was caught by the fire and died as he was fleeing his home.
The inadequacy of the firefighting forces to cope with the blazes became so evident by 5 August 1998 that the government requested international help. Initial help in the form of Canadair CL-415 waterbombers came from Italy and France during the crisis and stayed in Greece for a few days. Four German military helicopters (CH-53) arrived later as well as a Russian Ilyushin jet plane that can deliver 40 tons of water per flight. Furthermore, four Canadair CL-215 planes were rented from Canada. The government also took special prevention measures such as forbidding visits to the forests in the fire stricken areas and organizing army-supported patrols in sensitive areas.
After 10 August 1998 weather conditions started changing. Air relative humidity gradually increased, winds generally subsided and some rain fell in various parts of the country. Fire activity decreased and only few fires became relatively large after that.
Official fire statistics, in contrast to previous years, had not been available through the fire season. By the end of August estimates from foresters brought the total burned area to approximately 120,000 or even 150,000 ha. At the end of fall, the Fire Service announced that a total of 95,571 ha had burned. Only 78,192 ha were wildlands while the rest was mainly rural and urban-wildland interface areas. These figures were questioned by forestry people. The data presented in Figure 1 show the total burned area per year in Greece for the 1980-1998 period; the 1998 figures of the total burned area are based on the (non-final) Fire Service estimates.
The number of fires, according to the Fire Service, reached 8748 in 1998, bringing the mean burned area per fire to approximately 11 ha. However, the fire recording system of the Fire Service is not compatible with the previously used one. As a result the number of recorded fires is more than double of the figure for any previous year as illustrated in Figure 2.
In conclusion, the mistakes made before and during the fire season resulted in a clearly foreseeable disaster. These mistakes should not be repeated. It is very important for the country to take advantage of the remaining time before the next fire season and to organize the best possible system for forest fire protection. Such a system should:
Recognize the need for well planned overall fire management, and not only the need for effective fire suppression.
Give an emphasis on fire prevention.
Incorporate within a well planned and organized framework all existing forces, avoiding turf battles.
Take advantage of all the expertise and technology available in the country in order to make the system and the available forces work in the best possible way.
Fig.1. Total area burned per year in Greece in the period 1980-1998
Fig.2. Number of forest fires in Greece in the period 1980-1998