1995 was a better than average year, with respect to forest fires, for Greece. At the end of October, with the fire season practically over due to heavy rains, a total of 1572 forest fires had been reported. The area burned was 25,186 hectares which is approximately half the area burned for each of the three previous years (Fig.1 and 2).
In spite of the good overall results, one large fire at the mountain of Penteli, in Attica, a distance of a few kilometres NE of Athens, burned 6,500 hectares in three days (21-24 July 1995) and created, both nationally and internationally, the impression of a catastrophic fire season. A short description of the evolution of this fire follows.
The Fire on Penteli Mountain
The fire started around 08:00 on 21 July, in a thick Aleppo Pine (Pinus halepensis) forest, under an unusually strong northerly wind with gusts reaching 75 km/hr. This wind had started blowing on the previous day and continued at this strength throughout the first two days of the fire. An extreme fire danger warning had been issued on 19 July for the next four days. Three other fires, at short distances from Penteli mountain, that erupted in the sixteen hours preceding the Penteli fire, were controlled successfully in spite of the adverse conditions. However, they drained resources from Penteli for their suppression and mop-up. These efforts were still in progress at the time the large fire started.
Fig.1. Number of forest fires in Greece in the period 1980-1995
Fig.2. Burned area per year in Greece in the period 1980-1995
Fig.3. Mean burned area per fire in Greece in the period 1980-1995
The fire on Penteli mountain started next to a road with quite heavy traffic and was reported immediately, through mobile phone, by drivers who stopped and tried unsuccessfully to extinguish it. It accelerated quickly and in a very short time developed into a crown fire exhibiting extreme fire behavior including medium and long range spotting. The ground forces dispatched to the fire were unable to control it. The aerial means (amphibian Canadair CL-215 airtankers and CHINOOK CH-47D helicopters with bambi-buckets [7 m3]) that were already operating on two of the other fires in the area were diverted immediately to this fire but were unable to perform efficiently due to extreme wind-caused turbulences.
The fire soon reached an extensive urban-wildland interface area where a number of villages and individual homes were close to or even within the thick Aleppo pine forest. A gigantic effort started at that time to save people and homes while trying to control the fire at the same time. The main fire front was controlled by the evening of 21 July. More than 2000 ha had burned by that time. Subsequent runs on the flanks, as the wind shifted direction and efforts concentrated on saving homes and lives, gradually increased the burned area to its final size.
More than ninety fire trucks of the Forest Service and the Municipal Fire Service were dispatched to this fire. Some of them were sent from areas at distances exceeding 500 km from Athens. Approximately forty tanker-trucks belonging to the municipalities were used for the supply of the fire trucks with water. More than 1150 firefighters and 1400 soldiers were also involved. They were supported by a large number of volunteers.
Nearly all the heavy aerial firefighting means of the country were involved in the suppression efforts. Nine CL-215 amphibian water bombers, one MAFFS equipped C-130 air tanker and two CHINOOK CH-47D helicopters were used for class A foam, fire retardant and water drops respectively, while two BELL UH-1H “Huey” helicopters were used for reconnaissance and coordination. This fleet was augmented, after the first day, by two Canadair CL-415 water bombers that were sent by the Italian government and one FOKKER-27 airtanker plus one BE-20 lead-plane sent by the French government in a highly appreciated move of international cooperation in disaster management. A fleet of six helicopters sent by the government of Germany arrived on the third day of the fire and was dispatched to support firefighting efforts in another significant fire close to Patras, in Peloponese, which finally burned approximately 1000 ha.
The fire of Penteli, burned a total of 105 buildings. Few of them were high quality houses built with reinforced concrete frame, clay-tile roofs etc. Most of the structures that were destroyed were out-houses, mobile homes, small temporary buildings, farm-barns etc. made of flammable materials. In spite of the extreme conditions, no lives were lost which should be credited to the effective coordination of the firefighting forces and the police.
The ecological destruction was heavy, given the significance of the mountain of Penteli for the environment of Athens. A series of actions was started immediately by the Forest Service in an effort to prevent further degradation and erosion problems. Grazing is not allowed to protect natural regeneration. 800 ha that had recently burned again and are not expected to regenerate naturally are being planted with a variety of mainly broadleaf species adapted to the environmental conditions, in an effort to avoid establishment of a new Aleppo pine monoculture that will lead to similar problems in the future. On steep slopes where the possibility of extreme erosion in case of heavy rain causes a fear of serious flooding, the trunks of burned pines are cut and laid on the ground parallel to the contours, tied with wire to the tall stumps left on the site. They are expected to function as dams reducing the eroding force of water. Many kilometers of rows of such “dams” have already been constructed.
An overview of the fire season
As mentioned above, the 1995 fire season was a better than average one. The effectiveness of the fire suppression mechanism, as judged by the mean burned area per fire, was the best since 1976 (Fig.3). This can be attributed to some extent to not-so-severe overall weather conditions. However, the quick suppression of many potentially disastrous fires is evidence of the improvements that took place in the firefighting organization. The most important changes were:
Improvements in the selection of the dispatchers at the Firefighting Coordination Centre and in the cooperation between them.
Improvements in the communications network of the firefighting forces including preparation of two command vehicles with sophisticated communications capabilities.
Improvements in maintenance and performance of the country’s fleet of 11 CL-215 amphibian water bombers, as well as addition of foam capability.
Improvements in the distribution of the bases of the fleet of aerial firefighting means which included: Airplanes: 11 CL-215, 21 PZL-M18, 3 C-130/MAFFS. Helicopters: 4 CHINOOK CH-47D, 7 BELL UH-1H “HUEY”
Increase in the number of well-trained airborne firefighters who are carried to the fire by helicopters, to a number of 500 for the whole country.
Training of 25 foresters on fire cause investigation through a specially designed course offered by specialists from the United States Forest Service.
It should also be mentioned that in 1995 there was no loss of life due to wildfires in sharp contrast with the previous few years. In the future, it is expected to improve on the results of 1995 through improvements in the organization of the forest fire suppression mechanism, stronger prevention efforts, better personnel training and increase in the available ground and aerial firefighting means.
From: Gavriil Xanthopoulos Forest Fire Specialist Address: Ministry of Agriculture General Secretariat for Forests and Natural Environment 3-5 Ippokratous str. GR – Athens, 10164