Fire chief warns Greek forests still at risk from fire

    Fire chief warns Greek forests still at risk from fire

5 May 2008

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Greece — Greek forests remain at risk of major wildfires like the devastating blazes that swept the country last summer and killed at least 65 people, the country’s fire chief warned Monday.

Athansios Kontokostas said the threat was sustained despite plans to boost firefighting personnel and air support.

There is “an overall increase in the size and intensity of the problem in the coming years. This is a troubling fact,” he said at the start of a three-day environment conference in Athens, hosted by more than a dozen environmental groups and agencies.

Deadly forest fires in August destroyed 500,000 acres of forest and olive groves in southern and central Greece, and ravaged a national park on Athens’ outskirts.

The fires followed successive heat waves, with temperatures reaching 46 C (nearly 115 F). In a massive international relief effort, more than 40 water-dropping planes and helicopters were made available to Greece.

Kontokostas said that during the whole of 2007, fires destroyed 667,000 acres across the country. In efforts to prevent a repetition this year, 5,500 seasonal firefighters _ who help 8,500 permanent staff _ will have annual contracts extended from five to eight months, he said.

Greece will also lease more Russian helicopters, including heavy transport Mi-26s and midsize Mi-8s, to assist its fleet of 47 planes and helicopters that includes 21 CL-215s and CL-415s.

Tom Harbour, director of fire and aviation management at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forestry Service, said much of southern Europe faced a heightened threat of wildfires.

“The flame is changing and becoming much more angry,” Harbour told the conference.

“There’s an accumulation of drier and hotter seasons around the world, especially in the Mediterranean area,” he said. There is an “accumulation of fuel in our forests, trees and brush … (and) there are more people in our forests, more power lines, more welding, more mechanized equipment.”

Harbour later told The Associated Press that he planned to meet later in the week with Greek fire officials as part of expanding cooperation between fire services worldwide.

He said U.S. officials were helping Greek authorities with training for arson investigations and fire prevention, while Greek firefighters were due to visit the U.S. to advise American colleagues on their methods of using water-dropping planes.

“On a global scale, what we’re being told is that there’s an alarm,” Harbour said. “I’m not yet pessimistic that there’s nothing we can do, but I do urge us all to listen to the alarm and make certain that we organize for an effective response.”

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