Questions raised on Greek forest fire management

Questions raised on Greek forest fire management

1 September 2007

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Greece — Forest fires that have raged in Greece for more than a week and left 63 people dead may have been exacerbated by an administrative decision 10 years ago, forestry experts say.

Greece’s forests may have been left more vulnerable when in 1997 rural fire management was shifted from the forestry service to the urban-based Fire Service, with no forestry experience, they say.

“Forest management is highly complex and if one part of that like fire management is missed out it can have these serious ramifications,” said Eunice Simmons, head of the National School of Forestry at the University of Cumbria in northern England.

“Controlled burns are all important, especially near habitations,” she told Reuters by telephone. “If they haven’t been done there will have been a build-up of dead undergrowth allowing fires to spread much farther and faster.”

Greece’s wildfires over the past eight days have razed vast swathes of forests and farmland; firefighters on Saturday were still battling flames in southern and eastern Greece.

There have been two other major fires in Greece since the administrative shift in 1997: one a year later when 112,802 hectares (278,700 acres) burned and another in 2000 when 167,000 hectares were destroyed.

There has been some speculation that after 2000 there was little left to burn until this summer, when fires have plagued the country.

After the 2000 blaze, Greek forest fire expert Gavril Xanthopoulos wrote a report saying the cause was the weakening of forestry management since the 1997 handover and warned that the danger would get worse unless remedial steps were taken.

Forestry expert Chris Perley, writing in the latest issue of the New Zealand Institute of Forestry’s weekly newsletter, said the change in the forestry service had made forest fire fighting a purely reactive process in Greece, with evident results.

The issue is topical in New Zealand where the government is proposing a move to the Greek forest fire management system from the existing decentralised arrangement.

“At essence is the loss of rural fire management focus on risk reduction, maintaining readiness, response, and recovery, as well as the loss of expertise, institutional knowledge, and cooperative community relations that are essential to the effectiveness of rural fire management.

“The overseas experience demonstrates that what actually happens is a loss of prevention emphasis, less willingness to listen to local expertise, an increase in costs, a decrease in effectiveness and a loss of environmental values, rural livelihoods, and even life,” he wrote.

In Greece, accusations of arson and terrorism have vied with those of sheer incompetence either as the cause of the blazes or for their extent.

Just two weeks ahead of a parliamentary election, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis has come under severe criticism for his government’s handling of the worst fires in memory.

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