The 1999 forest fire season in Greece has been a very good one. The total burned area fell to the lowest level since 1976, in sharp contrast to the 1998 fire season that had been one of the worst on record (Fig.1). This success, which has been reason for celebration for the Greek Fire Service (GFS), was the result of serious preparation work in combination with a relatively mild summer season in regard to fire danger.
Fig.1. Total annually burned area in Greece in the period 1970-1999
As reported last year, the GFS had been given full responsibility for forest fire fighting in May 1998, just before the beginning of the fire season. Having no time to prepare, it proved inadequate for this new duty. Many fires became very large bringing the total burned area to 95571 ha, fuelling a serious controversy between the GFS and Forest Service officers who were upset for losing the responsibility for forest fire fighting.
After the end of the 1998 fire season the GFS, being fully supported by the government, started preparing immediately for the summer of 1999. For this purpose it mobilized all of its people, recognized its weaknesses and tried to cure them before the beginning of the next fire season (June). The most important improvements were:
The permanent personnel of the GFS increased by 1300, bringing the total up to 8000 fire fighters and officers. This is a 19.4% increase.
4000 seasonal fire fighters were hired in time for the fire season. This number is lower by 25% compared to previous years.
Every effort was made to bring the morale of personnel up.
Recognizing the need for well trained personnel, the GFS organized a series of week-long seminars to train its officers in aspects of forest fire fighting on which their knowledge was inadequate. Subjects included introduction to fire behaviour and fire danger concepts, fire meteorology, forest fire fighting methods and techniques, and safety considerations. The seminars were taught by Greek specialists including the author. Furthermore, two seminars taught by Canadian training officers, focused on aerial fire fighting and fire fighting using ground crews (handcrews).
Aerial fire fighting means
Ten new amphibian CANADAIR CL-415 water bombers were ordered from BOMBARDIER in Canada. The first two were delivered in Greece before the start of the 1999 fire season.
Four heavy-lift helicopters were contracted from the international market for fire fighting. They were one Ericsson Air-Crane, two MI-26, and one Kamov. All of them performed very effectively. The MI-26, being able to carry 2 fire trucks plus personnel in its hull, proved indispensable for the protection of the hundreds of islands in the Aegean sea.
Two amphibian CANADAIR CL-215 water bombers and an Illyushin (IL 76 TD) airplane that can deliver up to 42 tons of water per drop were also contracted, to complement the 15 CANADAIR CL-215 operated by the Greek Air Force.
The use of Greek Army CHINOOK CH-47D and UH-1H “Huey” helicopters that had been extensive in previous years was limited in 1999.
The existing 18 PZL Dromader and six smaller Grumman agricultural aircraft operated by the Greek Air Force were used as usual, both for aerial patrol and initial attack.
Ground fire fighting forces
The total of the fire fighting trucks of the GFS (all types and ages) reached 1100, including 15 new units.
The fire fighting telecommunications network was improved significantly.
Many important needed tools, such as backpack pumps, appropriate hoses, etc. were acquired.
The number of handcrews increased and they were better organized. Most important the significance of their contribution was recognized so they were used more effectively.
Planning and organization
Starting in fall of 1998, all GFS units had to develop detailed pre-suppression plans for their jurisdiction. These plans were based on five fire danger/alertness levels provided by a fire danger prediction map for the country that was issued daily throughout the fire season. The author was responsible for preparing the map. The plans included such elements as planning for aerial and ground patrols, alerting local authorities on high fire danger days, forbidding access to specific forest areas under critical conditions, etc.
A general plan was prepared at the national level.
The principle of effective initial attack was applied both locally and at the dispatching center in Athens. The dispatchers were encouraged to send more resources than the minimum needed. Cost was a second priority.
A very intensive prevention campaign, based on TV and radio spots, was launched at the beginning of the fire season. It continued until the end of August.
The roads to sensitive forest areas, according to plans, were closed on critical days with the help of the Police and local authorities.
The GFS cooperated with the police in order to track-down suspected arsonists.
From the onset of the fire season it became evident that the whole organization worked more effectively than the year before. All fires and especially those close to Athens were attacked massively both from the air and from the ground. The aerial resources, especially the heavy lift helicopters, the new CL-415s and the contracted CL-215s performed exceptionally well and made the difference in terms of effective initial attack. Avoidance of delays in their dispatching and simultaneous concentration of large numbers of ground forces on each new fire minimized the chances of escaped fires. This approach was helped greatly by the relatively favourable weather conditions.
The climate in Greece is typically Mediterranean over most of the country. Most areas in the south part of the country, including Attica (the area around Athens), usually receive no rain in the summer months. This year was an exception with significant rain events interrupting the build-up of fire danger both in July and in August. On one occasion there was even flooding in Athens. Furthermore, air relative humidity remained at higher than usual levels on most days. As a result, fire potential was less than usual and, with effective initial attack, no fires reached 500 ha in size.
In spite of the successful results, the fire season was, unfortunately, marked by some tragic moments. On 28 July 1999, at night, three experienced fire fighters from an eleven-person handcrew were trapped by the flames on the island of Chios. The fire was burning in light fuels and there was a sudden wind change. Two of the fire fighters, who worked as seasonals for the GFS, lost their life. One of them, a 27 year-old girl who was an assistant-forester, died on the spot, while the second, a 31 year-old man suffered extensive burns (>60% of his body) and died a week later in the hospital. The third fire fighter trapped by the flames, a GFS officer, escaped with intense burns over 40% of his body, and managed to survive after a long treatment in the hospital.
Also, in September, one civilian driver of a water-truck belonging to the Town of Poros in Peloponnese, got killed when his truck fell-off a forest road. He had just refilled Fire Service fire trucks that were fighting a small wildfire and was returning to his base.
Another negative moment for the 1999 fire season was the destruction of a small number of houses on the island of Salamis, close to Athens, by two wildfires on different dates. Most of these houses were illegally built, close or within an Aleppo pine (Pinus halepensis) forest. They were of poor construction, built with flammable materials and had no safety measures in case of fire (poor road access, in contact with vegetation, no water tanks etc.). The fires occurred early in the afternoon with medium strength winds (4-5 Beaufort) but under very low air relative humidity (<20%) and accelerated very rapidly. Although very strong fire fighting forces were dispatched at once and controlled the fires in a few hours, many houses on the path of the fire front were destroyed or damaged within the first hour.
The latest count, covering the period 1 January to 30 September 1999, provided the following fire statistics:
Forest area burned: 6,470 ha Non-forest area burned: 12,484 ha Total area burned: 18,954 ha Total number of fires: 10,560
It should be noted that the number of fires reported by the GFS includes all fires to which GFS has been called and is not comparable with the number reported by the Forest Service until 1997. The latter generally reported less than 3000 fires per year.
The success of the 1999 fire season brought great relief to all those who care about the Greek forests. The results proved that the GFS has been working hard in the right direction rapidly improving its ability to control forest fires. However, it should be noted that there is still a lot of work to be done and there are still significant questions to be answered and problems to be solved:
In terms of the GFS, two elements that have not been tested in 1999 are its ability to control large fires, as there were not any, and the effectiveness of the massive initial attack strategy under more difficult fire danger conditions.
The cost of fire fighting has increased sharply in the last two years, especially due to the use of contracted aerial means.
The dispute with the Forest Service has not been resolved and cooperation between the two organizations is not smooth.
Fire prevention, especially through forest management, cannot be carried out effectively by the Forest Service which has been weakened significantly in the last two years. The same holds true about grazing on forest lands, where, without a serious grazing management program, the problem of “range improvement” fires set by shepherds will continue to exist. Without such management, the forest fire problem will never be rationally controlled and fire fighting costs will continue to rise.
The GFS and the government gradually recognize these problems and there is optimism that in the future the necessary measures will be taken to solve them. In the meantime, preparations for the next fire season are well in progress.
Gavriil Xanthopoulos Forester – Forest Fire Specialist Advisor to the Minister of Public Order Natural Resource Technologies Consulting 31 Mouson str. GR – Athens, 17562 GREECE