The 2003 fire season, which was characterized by extended forest fires in Portugal, Spain and France, was not an exceptionally difficult one for Greece. The winter and spring seasons had been quite rainy. This resulted in heavy grass growth and fears of a bad fire season. However, except for a dry May and June, there were some rains (mainly thunderstorms with rain) in July and August which helped keep fire danger to manageable levels. The rains occurred mainly in western, central and northern Greece, where the vegetation did not reach maximum flammability. On the contrary, the south and southeast part of the country did not get any rain and also experienced many days with strong NE (etesians or meltemi winds), bringing the level of fire danger there to level 4 (very high) of the 1-5 scale used in the country. Fortunately, relative humidity did not dip to extremely low levels during those days.
The fire prevention efforts of the General Secretariat for Civil Protection (GSCP) which also carried the responsibility for the daily preparation of the Fire Danger Prediction Map and for mobilizing all related agencies, in combination with the strong firefighting efforts of the Greek Fire Corps (GFC) brought very good results, even during those high fire danger days. By the end of September, according to the statistics collected by the Forest Service, there had been 1175 forest fires which burned a total of 2600 ha of which only 829 ha were tall forest. The GFC reported 4055 more outdoor fires in this time, including agricultural and all non-urban fires, that burned an additional 2162 ha. These figures are not final and are expected to rise a little, especially given some late season (October) fires, mainly in Crete.
These very good results reflect, to a large extent, the strength of the firefighting mechanism in the country. The ground forces of the Greek Fire Corps have grown significantly in the last few years. Currently, there are more than 10000 officers and permanent firefighters, assisted by 5000 seasonal firefighters in the summer. The number of firetrucks has exceeded 1100 units of various types. Furthermore, the Greek Fire Corps has acquired experience and its organization has improved significantly.
The ground forces are augmented every fire season by heavy aerial support. The aerial means in the country have become among the strongest in the world when compared to the size of the country. The national fleet of Canadair waterbombers, operated by the Air Force, includes fourteen (14) older CL-215 and ten (10) new CL-415. There are also twenty (20) single-engine PZL M-18 Dromader (one of them crashed on Lesvos island on August 25, 2003 while firefighting, killing its pilot). Also, the GFC has acquired two twin-engine helicopters and uses them for coordination of firefighting operations.
In the summer of 2003 the national aerial fleet was augmented by a large number of contracted firefighting helicopters which provided an unequaled firefighting capacity. The helicopter fleet for this fire season included three (3) Erickson S-64, four (4) MI-26, three (3) Kamov-32, and one (1) MI-14.
Mobilization of all these resources was done according to the daily fire danger map. The situation was kept always under control through massive initial attack, mainly from the air. The fact that only the south part of the country experienced high-fire danger days helped greatly as there were always plenty of aerial means available to attack starting fires as they were small. This is reflected by the fact that in 2003 eighty percent (80%) of the fires did not reach 1 ha in size, while no fire exceeded 100 ha.
On the downside, the extreme cost of all this firefighting mechanism and the heavy reliance on aerial means has resulted in an unbalanced fire management paradigm. Fire prevention works, including forest and fuel management and maintenance of the forest road network have been receiving less attention and funding in the last few years. This fact creates fears that a very bad situation may develop in a really difficult fire season, especially if demand at some point exceeds the capacity of the available aerial means.
Finally, it should be noted that in the summer of 2003, Greece offered some firefighting help, in the form of Canadair CL-415 water bombers, to Southern France at the time of maximum fire activity there. Unfortunately, it was not possible to do so for Portugal, because that request coincided with days of increased fire danger in Greece.
Mr. Gavriil Xanthopoulos GFMC Correspondent / UN-ECE/FAO Team of Specialists on Forest Fire National Agricultural Research Foundation Institute for Mediterranean Forest Ecosystems and Forest Products Technology Terma Alkmanos, 11528 Athens GREECE