Last year was a record year in the forest fire history of Greece: during the fire season from May to October, 2417 fires ravaged Greek forests, marking an all-time record in the fire statistics of Greece since the national average does not exceed 1100 fires per year. Approximately 47,000 ha of forest land were burned by these fires during 1993.
This dramatic increase in the number of forest fires can be primarily attributed to the following reasons:
A new law that legalised unlawful, arbitrary private structures in public forest lands that were previously burned, gave rise to a “wave” of arson in public forests. The prospect of subsequent arbitrary construction on the burned sites that would be rendered legal by taking advantage of the new law, during a year of national elections like 1993, was very tempting!
Equally important, a wave of illegal immigrants from Albania crossed the border in Northern Greece and, through remote forest trails, crossed the mountainous regions in order to seek temporary employment at the urban centres of Thessaloniki and Athens. These people, having to spend nights in the open air inside the forests, have caused many forest fires by negligence (abandoned camping fires) or malice (animosity towards immigration authorities). Many of these fires burned in areas of low fire risk, such as the high elevation forests of fir, beech and black pine of Northern Greece.
A third reason, independent of human acts, is the prolonged drought that has continued in Greece for four consecutive years and has left Southern Greece without a single drop of rain for 4.5 months!
At the same time, many extraordinary events marked the unique 1993 fire season in Greece:
An arson fire on the island of Ikaria in the Northeast Aegean sea, cost the lives of 11 farmers who were burned in their efforts to escape from the fire or were suffocated by smoke inside their homes. A National day of mourning was declared, and the Prime Minister visited the fire-stricken island, promising increased fire protection measures for all Greece.
Unlike other years, Northern Greece experienced many destructive fires, similar to those that traditionally occur in the drier and more flammable regions of Southern Greece which are covered by Mediterranean-type vegetation (maquis, garriques). Thus, high-elevation forest of fir, beech and black pine, located in Northern Greece, that had never experienced fires since the Second World War due to existing climatic (cold, humid areas) and socio-economic conditions (lack of population pressure or grazing intensity), were destroyed by fires set by illegal immigrants who entered the country through them. The geographical regions of Epirus and Macedonia had a record-high of 400 and 600 fires, respectively, which burned over 20,000 ha of high forest. Thus, Northern Greece did not escape forest fires this year.
The National Parks of “Valia Calda” in Epirus, covered with magnificent black pine forests, and “Olympus Mountain” in Macedonia, covered by fir forests, were burned. Thus, picturesque landscapes of amazing beauty and historical heritage were turned into ashes, leaving homeless the “12 Deities” of the Ancient Greek Pantheon!
For the second time, German firefighting helicopters successfully helped in forest firefighting in Greece. The helicopters were sent “gratis” by the German Government to Greece. Ten helicopters hired from a Canadian company, were used in forest fire fighting, after the successful German example in Greece.
A smokejumper unit was formed for the first time in Greece. It consists of former members of the “special forces” of the Greek Army who received special training. Bureaucracy and lack of funds delayed the unit’s deployment until late in the fire season, and its effectiveness is therefore difficult to assess.
Two huge forest fires, set for grazing land improvement at Peloponese (Megalopoli Arkadias) and Crete (Lasithi), burned over 4,000 ha each and destroyed farms and other agricultural property, forcing the temporary evacuation of whole villages. Thus, the role of farmers in forest fire prevention and protection is under consideration, while the possibility of introducing prescribed burning in Greece is being reexamined.
In 1993 once again forest fires monopolized the headlines of news in the mass media, increasing public awareness and rendering forest fires the number one environmental problem of Greece over the last fifteen years.
From: Alexander P.Dimitrakopoulos Address: University of the Aegean Department of Environmental Studies 17 Karadoni Str. GR-81 100 Mytilene