Greece: Fire Situation in Greece (IFFN No.23 – December 2000)

Fire Situation in Greece

(IFFN No. 23 December 2000, p. 76-84)


Greece occupies an area of 130 875 km2 at the southern tip of the Balkan Peninsula. Its population is approximately 10 million. Nearly half of these people live in the two largest cities, Athens and Thessaloniki. The country’s topography is mostly mountainous. Small plains and valleys are interspersed between the mountains and constitute the main agricultural areas.

The climate is typically Mediterranean over most of the country, with warm-to-hot summers and mild winters. Usually there is little or no rain in the summer, but quite often the dry season may start as early as April and continue well into fall. Only some of the wettest locations at high elevations have more than 100 days of rain per year. Yearly precipitation may exceed 2 000 mm at those locations. On the other hand, the southeastern tip of Greece, including the area around Athens and the Cyclades Islands in the Aegean Sea, has annual precipitation of less than 400 mm, which is one of the lowest in Europe.

Mean yearly temperature varies between 14.5o C in the north and 19.5° C on the southernmost island of Crete. Absolute minimum temperatures at high elevations in northern Greece may approach -25o C. In the summer, maximum temperatures occasionally reach 42-45o C at various inland locations. The influence of the Mediterranean Sea that surrounds the country on three sides helps moderate the air temperature in most areas.

Forest vegetation

Forest vegetation reflects the climate and topography of the country as well as the soil condition, which is generally quite poor. The influence of man, active in the area for more than three thousand years, is also reflected in the distribution and usually degraded condition of the forests. Drought-resistant evergreen broadleaved species (Quercus ilex, Laurus nobilis, Ceratonia siliqua, Olea europaea, Arbutus spp., Cistus spp., Erica spp., Pistacia spp. etc.), mostly forming shrublands, and pine trees (Pinus halepensis, Pinus brutia, Pinus pinea, etc.) occupy the lower elevations in the country (up to 300 m above sea level in northern Greece and 800 m in the south). Next, there is a zone of deciduous broadleaved species (Quercus spp., Fagus orientalis, Castanea vesca, etc.) and conifers (Pinus nigra, Pinus maritima, Cupressus sempervirens, Abies cephalonica, etc.) that reaches 900 m in the north and 1 200 m in the south. At higher elevations, up to 1 800 m, vegetation includes cold-tolerant broadleaved tree species (such as Fagus silvatica, Fagus moesiaca, Quercus sessiliflora, Quercus pedunculata, Populus tremula, Betula pendula, Fraxinus excelsior, Acer spp., etc.) and conifers (Pinus nigra, Pinus silvestris, Abies alba, etc.). Finally, at elevations up to 2 200 m, vegetation mostly includes cold tolerant conifers and a few broadleaved species (Picea excelsa, Abies alba, Pinus peuce, Pinus silvestris, Pinus heldreichii, Populus tremula, Sorbus aucuparia).

Forest flammability is generally high. The most flammable types are the pine forests (Pinus halepensis, Pinus brutia) and the shrublands at the lower elevations, by the sea, in the middle and southern part of the country. This vegetation is also adapted to fire either through cone serotiny (pines) or re-sprouting (shrubs).

Area, distribution and condition of forests

Approximately 19.8 percent of the surface area of Greece (about 2.5 million hectares) is characterized as forested. However, less than half of this area is covered by “tall” timber producing forests. Most of these are conifer forests. “Low” or coppice forests that mostly produce fuelwood occupy the remaining forest area. In addition to these forested areas, there are approximately 3.2 million ha of partially forested areas and shrublands (occupied mostly by evergreen broadleaved shrubs). There are also approximately 1.9 million ha of grasslands and phrygana (mostly areas covered by the low spiny shrub Sarcopoterium spinosum or the non-spiny shrub Flomis fruticosa). These shrublands and grasslands are mainly used for grazing.

Destruction of forests started in ancient Greece and took place mainly near highly populated areas, such as Athens and Crete. Clearing of land for use in agriculture, woodcutting for shipbuilding, housing construction, fuelwood and grazing, together with repeated fires through the centuries, resulted in a sharp decrease in the forested area to its present size. The remaining forests are in poor condition. As a result, less than a quarter of the total wood production of Greek forests is suitable for construction and industrial purposes; the rest is used for fuelwood. Many areas have been denuded to such an extent that reforestation is practically impossible.

Most forests in the country are state-owned. Nowadays all forests (state and private) are managed on a “sustained-yield” basis. A management plan is required for all forests larger than 100 ha. At higher elevations, where population density has decreased in the last three decades as people moved to the cities, signs of a forest comeback have started to appear. This is due to reduced grazing and abandonment of marginal agricultural lands. However, at lower elevations close to the sea, the forests are still in danger due to the ever-increasing frequency of wildfires.

Grazing of sheep and goats, traditional in the country, in recent times has become one of the main causes of wildfires. Many areas are overgrazed. Shepherds react to the resulting reduction of feed for the animals by burning to stimulate new growth of shrubs and grasses. However, as desirable plants gradually disappear due to overgrazing, the fire frequency increases. The soil is unprotected by vegetation when it is burned every few years and is soon eroded, resulting in lost site productivity and finally desertification. Often, when an area is denuded, fire is then used to convert forest land into grazing land, and the vicious cycle is repeated.

Forest fire statistics for Greece

The Greek Forest Service, which was responsible for forest fire fighting in Greece until 1997, collected statistics on forest fires for many decades. The data for 1990-1999 are given in Table 1. Forest Service officers at the local offices were required to file a report on each forest fire in their area. The Fire Service, which has become responsible for forest firefighting since 1998, has continued this practice. However, the statistics collected, especially in regard to the number of fires recorded, is not comparable between the two sets of data. Table 2 shows the wildland fire database for the period 1990-2000 for comparative purposes.

Number of fires and burned area per year

The number of fires and the burned area per year are two of the most important forest fire statistics. Table 1 summarizes these two statistics for Greece from 1990 to 2000 and table 2 does the same for the 1980-1989 period.. In a long-term fire analysis (1955-1999) Xanthopoulos (2000) showed that forest fires in Greece burned, on the average, 11 500 ha per year until 1973. Approximately a third of this area was forests. The remaining two-thirds was brushland and grassland of various types. A sharp increase in both the number of fires and the size of burned area was recorded in 1974. At that time, an ever-increasing trend was established that has continued until today.

The increase in the number of fires in the 1980’s can be attributed to many factors, one of which is a more thorough effort to record forest fires. However, a large part of this increase is due to increased activity of people in or near the forests and forested lands. New roads and an ever-increasing number of private cars offered easier access to forests. The number of people leaving the cities in the summer, seeking cooler places along the coastline and in the mountain villages for their vacation, has gradually increased, increasing the probability of accidental fires. The same is true for international tourists who visit Greece every summer at the peak of the fire season. Most importantly, a trend that started in the late 1970s of building secondary summer housing along the coasts, accelerated in the 1980s. These housing areas were poorly planned, creating a troublesome urban/wildland interface and increasing the risk of wildfires. The activities of these people, starting with construction and continuing with their everyday activities (barbecues, burning debris, parking cars on cured grass, etc.) have very frequently resulted in accidental wildfires.

Another factor that led to increased forest arson in the 1980s and 1990s is a spin-off of the demand for land to build secondary summer housing and to develop tourist accommodations. This demand far exceeded supply, as most forests in Greece are public and protection laws make change of use very difficult. Furthermore, an exact and complete land register has only recently started to be developed. The lack of land for development drove prices extremely high, and the lack of a land register and poor law enforcement allowed those burning forested lands to illegally occupy them. On more than one occasion, many years later, when the number of people in this category became too many and it was evident that it would be practically impossible to evict them from the areas they had occupied, the Greek government legalized these occupied lands. In this way, a motive for arson was created.

In the 1990s the number of fires continued to increase due to an increase in the factors mentioned. While in the 1980s the average yearly number of fires was 1 264, during the 1990-1997 period this average increased to 1 848 fires per year. A new factor contributing to this increase was fires started by immigrants illegally entering the country, mainly from Albania. Using forest trails high in the mountains, they started fires to cook or to warm up at night and did not properly extinguish them when leaving in the morning.

After 1997 the number of fires, as shown in Table 1, nearly tripled. This is because the Fire Service, which became responsible for forest fires in 1998, records every call that they respond to, while the policy of the Forest Service until 1997 was to only record those fires on which they had to take action because they were spreading toward or burning on forest lands.

As the number of fires increased in the late 1970s and 1980s, the size of the yearly burned area also started to rapidly increase. The larger number of fires, however, was not the only reason. Fires gradually became more difficult to fight due to the changing condition of forests and to the development of urban/wildland interface zones as described above. An example of the latter is the worst fire in 1981, one of the most difficult fire-years in the 1980s, which burned a large area and some houses in the northern suburbs of Athens.

The forests became denser and dead downed woody material increased as a result of the abandonment of villages, especially in mountainous areas, in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, as people immigrated abroad or moved to the big cities, mainly Athens. As dead forest biomass, especially around villages, stopped being used for cooking and heating as in the past, either due to decreasing population or due to replacement by oil, electricity and propane gas, it started building-up, making forests flammable right to the first houses of each village. Fires reaching there, rather than slowing down, now often burn homes and occasionally kill people.

In the past, resin collectors contributed to safer forests (mainly those of Pinus halepensis and Pinus brutia)by maintaining forest trails for their need to move from tree to tree and by managing the forest, selectively removing older trees that were useless to them in order to favour regeneration. Furthermore, since the forests were their field of production and the storage area of their product, they exercised maximum fire prevention care and immediately suppressed any fire. Unfortunately, by the end of the 1970s this profession started to slowly die out as the demand for resin decreased, income dropped, and no subsidies were provided by Greek or European Union policies.

The Forest Service, which is responsible for managing Greek forests, lacks personnel and resources and has concentrated on the management of the more valuable (in regard to timber quantity and quality) high-elevation forests. When the number of resin collectors decreased in the low-elevation pine forests, these forests were practically left unmanaged. Subsequently, they became more flammable, often impenetrable, and fighting fire in them became much more difficult.

In the 1980s, the burned area exceeded the 100 000 ha mark twice. Unfortunately, and in spite of a steep increase in firefighting means, this negative record was repeated again in 1998 and 2000: Unofficial figures bring the area burned in 2000 to more than 150 000 ha.

Another interesting fire statistic is presented in Table 3, which summarizes the frequency of forest fire occurrence by month, as a percent of the total, for 1964-1994. As shown in this table, July, August and September are the three busiest months for the firefighting forces, as is the case for most countries with Mediterranean climates in the northern hemisphere.

Damage to life and property caused by forest fires

Information on loss of life and property in Greece due to forest fires is sparse until 1960. A notable exception is a large wildfire, in a Pinus halepensis forest with shrub understory, that burned 3 000 ha in 1916 at Tatoi, Attica. The forest belonged to the crown. That fire killed three people, injured 300, and destroyed the summer palace and other buildings. Since then, and until the end of the 1970s, there were only a few, isolated cases of property damage due to wildfires. Only a few small, temporary, mostly wooden country buildings used by woodsmen and shepherds are known to have burned in this time period.

From 1950 to 1976 there was no recorded loss of human life due to forest fires. In 1977, however, the death of a nun trapped by a wildfire in a monastery on Mount Parnassos signalled the beginning of a new era in which the loss of human life due to wildfires became quite common. Two people where killed in the 1970s and 37 people were killed in the 1980s, nine in 1985 and 12 in 1988, two of the worst fire years. The reported fatalities included both firefighters (Forest Service personnel, soldiers and volunteers) as well as people trapped by fire. In addition to these fatalities, there were also many injuries during firefighting and the deaths of five Air Force pilots who fly the CL-215 waterbombers that have been used in aerial fire suppression operations since 1973. Four CL-215’s were destroyed during the 1980s. There were also losses in the squadron of smaller, single-seat PZL M-18 Dromader planes used since 1984.

Table 1. Wildfire database for Greece for 1990-2000.

                                             Source: Forest Service of Greece.


Tab.2. Wildfire database for Greece for 1980-1989.

                                                    Source: Forest Service of Greece.


Tab.3. Average percentage of fires occurring
each month, based on the data from 1964-1994.

In the 1990s, the death toll was similar to that of the 1980s. A fire on the island of Ikaria in the Aegean Sea cost the life of 13 civilians, creating a nationwide sensation. Three Army pilots and seven firefighters were killed in 1994 when their UH-1H “Huey” helicopter hit power lines on its way back from a fire. Three Fire Service firefighters and a volunteer were trapped by flames and died near Athens in 1998. A fast-moving fire on the island of Chios in 1999 overcame three firefighters. In 2000, seven people died in one night near the Greek border with Albania when a fast-moving fire burned through their sparsely populated villages.

In 1993 and 2000 two more CL-215’s were lost, killing four more pilots. The loss of a PZL M-18 on Corfu Island in 2000 cost the life of another pilot.

The development of urban/wildland interface areas, either due to the expansion of large cities or the development of summer housing started in the mid 1970’s. This trend coincides with both the increase in forest fire numbers and burned area and the beginning of significant losses in life and property. Loss of property, for a time, was surprisingly low, even during fierce wildfires. This was due to the traditional use of non-combustible building materials for houses (concrete, bricks, stone, clay roof tiles, etc.). Wood is seldom used for building houses, except for certain specific uses (roof support frames, doors, windows, etc.) (Xanthopoulos 1988). However, as the number of houses increased it became impossible for the firefighting forces to defend all of them. As a result, property damage started to rise sharply. For example, a fierce fire in 1981 in the northern suburbs of Athens resulted in the complete destruction of at least two houses and partial damage to others. These losses are surprisingly low in view of the fact that this fire burned approximately 1 120 ha in a wildland/urban interface area in addition to 550 ha of Pinus halepensis forest. Fifteen years later, in 1995, a large fire (6 500 ha) on Penteli Mountain near Athens burned about 100 buildings, many of them homes. A second large fire on Penteli Mountain that burned 7 500 ha in 1998 resulted in the destruction of even more homes.

Damage to property due to wildfires is not limited to buildings. Significant economic losses each year result from forest fires that burn agricultural land adjacent to forests. Especially important are orchards, which can be completely destroyed. Production losses include the long time necessary for reestablishment of the burned orchards. Olive (Olea europaea) orchards, in particular, are especially susceptible to complete destruction due to their flammability.

Forest fire causes

Data on fire causes after 1998 are quite unreliable. However, the causes are not expected to be drastically different from those indicated by the data previously collected by the Forest Service. Table 4 summarizes the distribution of fire causes in two difficult fire years and also presents average values for 1968-1993 (Kailidis and Xanthopoulos 1991, Markalas and Pantelis 1996).

As Table 4 shows, few forest fires in Greece are due to natural causes. Lightning-caused fires account for less than 3 percent of the total number of fires. The rest of the fires with known causes have been categorized as accidental, due to negligence or deliberately started.

A large number of fires are reported due to “unknown causes”. Most of them are suspected to be deliberately set. For example, 428 out of the 602 fires listed in the “unknown causes” category for 1988 are suspected to belong in the “deliberately set” category; 241 of them were probably started for rangeland improvement. A significant number of the “unknown causes” fires may be lightning caused, since determination of this cause can be quite tricky when a fire remains dormant and undetected for some time after a storm and then starts spreading when conditions became favourable.

In terms of importance, arson fires for land use change, fires from burning garbage dumps and power line fires are considered to be the worst since they usually occur on days with high wind. Shepherd fires are also a problem, both due to the cost of fighting them and to the fact that even when firefighting efforts are successful the shepherds merely wait for more difficult conditions and try again.

Fire management organizations

As mentioned earlier, the organization responsible for forest fires in Greece until 1997 was the Forest Service. Then, in May 1998, a new law gave responsibility for forest firefighting to the Fire Service, which until then was responsible for municipal fires but also contributed to forest firefighting. Most aspects of fire prevention remained with the Forest Service. However, the Forest Service was weakened significantly as approximately one fourth of its personnel as well as many pieces of equipment (vehicles, radios etc) were moved to the Fire Service.

The Fire Service clearly failed to control fires in 1998. Forest fires proved to be quite different from municipal fires and this, combined with a difficult fire season, brought the burned area to 112 802 ha. After that, the Fire Service started an effort to prepare for forest firefighting by training its personnel, preparing pre-suppression plans, acquiring appropriate equipment (e.g. 1-inch hoses, backpack pumps, appropriate boots, etc.), creating additional fire stations in previously poorly protected areas and adopting the use of a daily fire danger prediction map through the summer months. The government supported the Fire Service fully, both morally and financially, ordering, among other measures, ten new CL-415 Canadair waterbombers and allowing contracting of additional private aircraft in 1999.

The fire season of 1999 was a relatively mild one and, with the help of the contracted aircraft, the results were extremely good. However, weaknesses still remained. In 2000, predicting a difficult fire season, the Fire Service contracted an even larger number of aircraft. Unfortunately, the difficulty of the fire season often exceeded the capacity of the firefighting forces and on some difficult days fires burned rampant. The burned area, exceeded 160 000 ha, thereof 110 000 ha forest lands and the rest mainly agricultural. At least seven people (civilians) were killed, and hundreds of houses were lost to fires. Two Canadair CL-215 pilots and one PZL M-18 pilot were killed when their planes crashed during firefighting. Also, one Fire Service officer died as a result of injuries sustained by a rock falling down on of the slopes of Taygetos mountain near Sparta in Peloponnesus. Many weaknesses in firefighting became evident and a new circle of improvements is clearly imminent.

The permanent personnel of the Fire Service reached 10 000 in 2000. Four thousand seasonal employees were added in the summer. There were 1 100 fire trucks, including a variety of types and capacities, while the number of support vehicles (vans, mini-buses, off-road 4x4s, etc.) reached 200. Additionally, in fires in the wildland/urban interface, water trucks from the local authorities were available to bring water to the fire trucks.

State-owned aircraft, which are operated by the Greek Air Force, include 4 new CL-415 Canadair waterbombers, 14 older CL-215 waterbombers, 20 PZL M-18 Dromader airplanes (after the loss of one CL-215 and one M-18 in 2000) and 6 Grumman biplanes. Up to two C-130 cargo planes fitted with MAFFS retardant delivery systems can be added to this fleet on short notice. Two Army Chinook CH-47D helicopters with Bambi buckets are also made available when needed.

In 2000, the state aircraft fleet was augmented by 3 contracted CL-215s and 16 heavy-duty helicopters (1 Ericsson Air-Crane, 3 MI-26s, 4 MI-8s, and 8 Camovs). Seven of the Camov helicopters were contracted in mid-July after the first disastrous fires of the season. Also, two light helicopters were contracted for coordination of firefighting forces.

The Fire Service has a top-down structure, one of the few state organizations that has not been broken down into a regionalized structure in the 1990s. This is a significant advantage for the task of firefighting as it allows easy mobility of resources between regions and good central coordination. On the other hand, the military-like structure of the Fire Service that includes Army-equivalent ranks often results in firefighting being coordinated not by the best qualified people but by those of the highest rank.


Tab.4. Distribution (%) of fire causes in Greece in 1988, 1993 and 1968-1993

The Forest Service, which is responsible by law for fire prevention, has been broken down into a regional structure without provision for effective central coordination. This change has reduced its effectiveness, or at least made it completely variable by region. Also, its personnel have been reduced in number after approximately 1 000 forest guards were transferred to the Fire Service. The remaining personnel are generally over 45 years old and retiring at a high rate. The number of employees is less than 2 800. This is clearly inadequate to successfully carry out all the forest management and protection tasks required. Range management is minimal and prescribed burning is only discussed at a theoretical level. Lack of appropriate funding for fire prevention work (e.g. fuel management) further compounds the problem. With poorly managed forests and fire prevention work practically non-existent the fire problem in the country, in meteorologically difficult fire seasons, can only be expected to worsen.

Another state organization that is involved in forest fires is the General Secretariat for Civil Protection (GSCP). It was established by law in 1995 and was gradually organized in the late 1990s. It is part of the Ministry of Interior and has a coordinating role for all types of disasters, including forest fires. In this area it provides support to the Fire Service from local authorities (Regions, Prefectures, Municipalities) in regard to equipment (water trucks, dozers, etc.) and auxiliary personnel. Its planning includes, among other things, coordination for evacuations.

Both the Fire Service and the GSCP try to mobilize volunteers who will help in firefighting and other disasters. The effort to date has had some results, and the number of volunteers offering serious help in firefighting is estimated at around 500 people.

The Army generally supports firefighting activities upon request. During difficult periods soldiers undertake the task of surveillance and mop-up of fires that have been brought under control, reducing the number of firefighters needed to remain on site for this task. It also offers heavy equipment such as dozers upon request.

The Police are also involved in forest fire related activities. They provide traffic control and, when needed, coordinate the evacuation of villages, camps, etc. They also cooperate with the Fire Service in arson investigations. The Police often undertake surveillance of suspects in order to catch them in the act of arson.

Conclusions and Outlook

As can be seen, Greece has a serious fire problem. The money and effort devoted to coping with the problem is significant. Actually, especially in terms of aerial forces, the country should probably be rated first in the world on a per-hectare-protected basis. However, the poor results of the last few years clearly indicate that there is need for improvement, especially in regard to knowledge and organization of the whole effort. Also, there is a clear need for better managed forests and serious fire prevention efforts. The latter objective requires an upgraded and modernized Forest Service that will work in close cooperation with the Fire Service.

The Fire Service needs to improve its initial attack capability. Indirect attack should be recognized as a true alternative to direct attack and the methods for its application should become part of basic training at all levels. The ground forces should learn to rely less on the help of aerial forces because they may be unavailable under certain conditions (extreme winds, too many simultaneous fires, night hours). Also, the Fire Service should evaluate its pre-suppression planning in order to maximize the effectiveness of its forces, especially the aerial ones. Good cooperation with the Forest Service is clearly necessary.

Some of the improvements needed in the Forest Service are:

  • Hiring new permanent, competent staff;
  • Changes in structure that will permit a central policy to be applied in all regions, including training in modern concepts and methods;
  • A mission for active rangeland management by the Forest Service and education of shepherds; and
  • Active management of the low-elevation Aleppo and Brutia pine forests.

Of course, these changes in the Forest Service will require additional funding compared to the current low level, but in the long term will reduce damage and the cost of firefighting. Otherwise, given the natural flammability of Greek forests, the problem may become worse in spite of spending more money in the battle against forest fires.

Contact address:

Gavriil Xanthopoulos
Forester – Forest Fire Specialist
Advisor to the Minister of Public Order
Natural Resource Technologies Consulting
31 Mouson str.
GR – Athens, 17562

Fax: ++30-1-9816221


Kailidis, D. 1990. Forest fires. 3rd edition. Giahoudi-Giapouli editions. Thessaloniki, Greece. 510 p. (in Greek).
Kailidis, D., and G. Xanthopoulos. 1991. The forest fire problem in Greece. Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki, Greece, Department of Forestry and Natural Environment, Forest Protection Laboratory. No. 3. 10 p.
Kapakis, I. 2000. Forest fires in Greece. Pirosvestiki Epitheorisi (Firefighting Review). 81 (B), 10-19. (in Greek).
Markalas, S., and D. Pantelis. 1996. Forest fires in Greece in 1993. Aristotelian Univ. of Thessaloniki, Department of Forestry and the Natural Environment, Forest Protection Laboratory. No 3. 40 p. (in Greek).
Xanthopoulos, G. 1988. Greek forest fires and property damage: A brief history. pp. 199-200. In: Proceedings – Symposium and Workshop on “Protecting People and Homes from Wildfire in the Interior West”, October 6-8, 1987, Missoula, Montana, USA. USDA For. Serv. Gen. Tech. Rep. INT-251. 213 p.
Xanthopoulos, G. 1998. Forest fires in Greece: Past, present and future. Epikentra (Foundation for Political Research and Advanced Education). 6: 62-71. (Special issue titled “Greek forests: myths and reality – Proposals for the present and for the future). (in Greek).


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