The fires in Greece of August 24-28, 2007

The fires in Greece of August 24-28, 2007

29 August 2007

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by Dr. Gavriil Xanthopoulos

Starting on August 24, 2007 and continuing until today (28-8-2007) Greece has faced its worst forest fire disaster ever. This statement is not only about the size of burned area but also about loss of life and property. The damages are beyond anyimagination.

Fire danger has been extreme. A heat wave (temperatures above 39 degrees Celsius for three days) was followed by a day of 7-8 Beaufort scale winds (50-70 km/hr) and extremely low relative humidity (8-20%). All these combined with a highly stressed vegetation (no rain in S. Greece for the whole summer, plus 3 heat waves during the summer), resulting in explosive conditions.

When this situation was faced with ineffective fire initial attack from the ground the stage was set for disaster. Two fires started on Thursday, August 24, on mount Parnon (east of Sparta) and on mount Taygetos (west of Sparta) in Peloponnese. They soon started raging out of control. A new fire in the morning of Friday erupted near the towns of Oitylo & Areopolis roughly 30 km south of the fire of Taygetos. This fire caused the first six deaths. It attracted immediately the attention of the Fire Service and the media until in the afternoon the news about massive fatalities in a new fire in Ilia (western Peloponnese) startedcoming.

As the news about the deaths started adding up, coordination started failing. New fires that started in other parts of Peloponnese and on Evia Island North of Athens did not receive proper initial attack. They escaped and started growing quickly. They were not attacked methodically. Fire trucks were sent to the villages in the way of the fires (1-3 trucks per village) to protect them. Evacuations were ordered or spontaneously started in panic. The perimeter of all fires (not only the front, which was anyway too difficult to confront) was practically abandoned. Fires kept growing until some of them united with each other. The large fleet of aerial means did not manage to offer effective help partly because of the extreme conditions (on some occasions Canadair planes were not able to operate safely due to the wind) but also due to lack of ground forces below them to complete extinguishing the fire..

For the four following days, due to the large number and size of fires and the countless pleas for help, aerial means and ground forces were used ineffectively as they were not finishing any job. The planes and helicopters were sent here and there for a few drops, and then called-off to another fire.

Not realizing that “tactical firefighting”, based only on Fire Service resources, was doomed to fail by Saturday morning, the whole mechanism kept pushing people to evacuate villages indiscriminately, instead of coordinating capable villagers to help the state mechanism: prepare their homes and agricultural fields (such as clearing grasses in their olive groves) in advance, fight flanking fires with their agricultural equipment, protect themselves in the village, etc,

There is no official account of the total burned area but it clearly exceeds 100000 ha. More than half of the prefecture of Ilia has burned to this day. The ancient site of Olympia, which was surrounded by pine forest, was barely saved due to focused ground forces concentration, strong aerial support and an on-ground automatic sprinkler system installed there before the 2004 Olympic Games. Large areas also burned in Arcadia, Laconia, Messinia, Corinthia, and on the island of Evia. More than 110 villages were destroyed leaving thousands of people homeless. The government is trying to handle the situation on the public relations side. It declared a general state of emergency, mobilized the army, announced increased support for the people whose properties were destroyed, etc., It also talked about an organized arson plan, without, however, presenting any evidence.

Sixty four people have died due to these fires. The number is expected to increase a little more as many injured people are in hospitals, some of them with serious burns. Most of the dead were caught in the open, either trying to flee or surrounded by the fire as they were trying to save their property.

Finally, special mention should be made to the support with aerial firefighting means and even ground crews that Greece has received from many other European and even non-European countries in the last two days. The aerial fleet that is operating now is probably the largest assembled anywhere.

Currently, the situation in regard to fire spread has improved as the wind subsided (2-4 BF) but the fires are still not controlled. No one can be sure on when the fires will stop spreading. The Greek TV channels, most of them having continuous 24 hour coverage of the fires since Friday, are showing a continuous battle against fire re-starts along the large fire perimeters. Much of their footage looks as a textbook example of the ineffectiveness of aerial firefighting when it is not followed by well coordinated groundfirefighting.

Dr. Gavriil Xanthopoulos
Research Forester (Forest Fires)
Athens, Greece

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