Who struck the match?

Who struck the match?

12 September 2008

published by www.sofiaecho.com

Bulgaria — The Sofia Echo has conducted research on the possible link between the locations of this year’s forest fires and investment interests in the areas concerned. In some of the affected zones there would seem to be a link between the conflagrations and investor interest.

This year, forest fires have been much less frequent than last summer. For the first eight months of 2008, 3527.8ha of land fell victim to forest fires. During the same period last year, 42 934ha burned, Rossen Popsavov from the State Forestry Agency (SFA) told a news conference on September 5.

Human activity was to blame for many of these incidents, both current and past, according to Popsavov. However, the fires were not started intentionally but stemmed from human negligence and, in particular, a violation of a Ministry of Environment and Water Affairs (MOEW) ban on burning stubble fields less than 500m from forests. Some farmers apparently still believed this to be the cheapest way to “clean” fields.

One notable case of arson cited by Popsavov was the recent burning of 15-20ha of coniferous forests near the village of Bogomilovo in the Stara Zagora region. The motive was unclear, but the fire was clearly deliberate because the blaze erupted at several places inside the forest, Popsavov said.

The cause of the Rila National Park fire, which started on September 3 and was still raging when this issue of The Sofia Echo was being finalised, was also still unclear, he said. The Ministry of Emergency Situations said that a lightning strike could have triggered the blaze. According to Bulgarian environmentalists, however, the fire could have been intentional because it broke out right next to the Kartalski Polyani area, where local businessman Hristo Kovachki intends to construct a new winter resort. His plans, however, have been opposed by environmental organisations and activists because the law forbids the construction of large-scale tourism facilities in a national park.

The Bulgarian spokesperson for the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Konstantin Ivanov, told The Sofia Echo that there was no proof that the fires were connected to investment intentions.

The forest fire in Rila National Park was particularly unfortunate for the permanent bird population, such as woodpeckers and owls, which need large and sprawling forests, Irina Mateeva, an expert from the Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds (BSPB) told The Sofia Echo. Rila National Park was proposed for inclusion in the Natura 2000 network in Bulgaria under the European Union Habitats directive but, inexplicably, it was not approved, Mateeva said. This, however, did not detract from its importance for birds, she said. The French government sent two aircraft to fight the fire in Rila National Park on September 7, while on September 9 two more aircraft arrived from Spain to join the effort. Planes were also using water from Iskur Dam to fight the fire.

Another fire started on the other side of Rila Mountain, near the town of Samokov on September 7. Samokov municipality declared a state of emergency because the fire could not be extinguished until September 10, and only then with the aid of French aircraft.

Mechkata, the area near Samokov where the fire was still burning as of September 10, is full of villas and is popular with holiday investors. It’s next to the dam and gives opportunities for summer tourism. However, in 2007 the law banned construction in certain areas around the dam, which is important for the water’s cleanliness because it is used to supply Sofia and the surrounding region’s population.

On August 12 2008, another mountain was on fire: between five and 10ha of dry grass burned in the foothills of Pirin Mountain near Bansko, and the towns of Simitli and Razlog.

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