Greece had slightly fewer forest fires in 1994 than during the previous year. At the end of October, with the fire season practically over due to heavy rains, a total of 2074 fires had been reported. The area burned was 54.000 hectares which is at the same level as in the last two years (Fig. 1 and 2).
The Greek Forest Service had anticipated a difficult fire season from the start of the summer. Contrary to the previous years that had been very dry, plenty of rain fell all over the country during the growing season resulting in unusually heavy growth of grasses and forbs. July and August were dry as usual with unnaturally hot and dry weather extending through all of September, prolonging the fire season.
The heavy load of grasses, once cured in the summer months, favoured quick fire acceleration and extreme rates of spread. As usual, a small number of fires that escaped initial attack under high winds became very large burning between 2,000 and 4,000 hectares. Most of these fires burned, in addition to the forest lands, unusually high acreage of agricultural lands, mainly olive groves. This was due to the high loading of grasses under the crop trees.
The difficulty of the fire season did not result in a larger burned area, which was due to the increased firefighting ability and effort of the Greek Forest Service with the help in many instances of the Urban Firefighting Service. The fleet of forest firefighting vehicles, with the recent addition of two hundred 4X4 semi-trucks equipped with slip-on firefighting units and 40 new UNIMOG 2150, exceeded a total of 600 vehicles. A total of 6000 seasonal employees, in addition to the permanent Forest Service personnel, manned this fleet. This force resulted in improved initial attack capability that was strengthened further by 375 specially trained airborne firefighters.
The airborne firefighters were deployed in ten helicopter bases and were transported for initial attack to the fires by helicopters that were made available by the Greek Armed Forces. The helicopters used were medium-size Bell UH-1H (Huey) and heavy lift CHINOOK CH-47. In addition to firefighter transport, the helicopters were also used for firefighting carrying water with “Bambi” buckets.
An important priority in firefighting in 1994 was the effort to avoid loss of life and housing property. In the last fifteen years there has been an increasing trend in forest fire related deaths. More than twenty lives were lost in 1993 alone. A major cause of this increase, which has also contributed to the increase in the total number of fires, is the development of extensive urban-wildland interface areas in the last two decades. The effort for protection of such areas was successful and loss of life was avoided there. Of course, this high priority effort put a heavy load on the firefighting forces reducing their ability to control the spread of the fire as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, the accidental crash of a Bell UH-1H helicopter in September on its return trip from a mission caused the death of 7 airborne firefighters and the 3-man crew. The official investigation that followed attributed the accident to pilot error.
Fig.1. Number of forest fires in Greece during the period 1980-1994 (will be added later)
Fig.2. Burned area per year in Greece during the period 1980-1994 (will be added later)
From: Gavriil Xanthopoulos Forester – Forest Fire Specialist Address: Ministry of Agriculture General Secretariat of Forests and Natural Environment 3-5 Ippokratous str. GR – Athens 10164