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Forest fires in Greece

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GREECE WAS PARTICULARLY vulnerable to fire this year as it experienced its hottest summer for more than a century, with three consecutive heat waves that sent temperatures soaring above 46˚C.

Exceptionally unfavourable meteorological conditions prevailed in most regions. Long periods of strong winds and high temperatures, combined with low relative humidity – in some cases nine per cent – caused hundreds of forest fi res. July was the worst month, according to Fire Service statistics, with 2,614 wildfi res recorded – the highest number ever for Greece. To put this in perspective, July of 2006 saw 1,586 fires and 1,613 were recorded in July 2005. But the truly devastating spate of fires occurred at the end of August, when flames destroyed thousands of hectares of forest and agricultural land, and many hundreds of houses burned down or were rendered uninhabitable. Around 3,000 people were left homeless.


The impact on agriculture is serious; many small farmers face ruin following widespread damage to their properties, land or livestock. However, the ‘hot period’ started earlier after the first heat wave, in June. From June 26 to 28, 317 fi res were recorded. One of these

was a blaze that started on June 28, in which significant areas of the Parnitha National Park were destroyed. More than 25 million out of 38 million square metres of the protected forestwere burned, along with some millions of square metres of the surrounding area, making

it one of the worst recorded wildfires in the prefecture after the Penteli fire in mid-1995. The Parnitha blaze was caused by sparks from a high-voltage electricity pylon following a network overload in the village of Stephani in Dervenochoria, which led to a fire storm.

Environmental studies report that flooding is now a very probable danger for the northern suburbs of the city. Other areas affected were Pelion in Magnisia and Agia, Larisa, where two people lost their lives while trying to escape by car. More than 100 fires were reported by July 15, in locations including the Peloponnese, and the islands of Euboea, Lesbos, and Samos, as well as Crete and the Ionian island of Cephalonia. Around July 20, the Peloponnese experienced a fire that started in the mountains over the town of Aigio and expanded rapidly towards Diakopto and Akrata, destroying many hectares of forest and cultivated land. In the same fire, many villages were totally or partly burned, and three people lost their lives. A 26-year-old-farmer and a 77-yearold- woman were arrested on suspicion of arson concerning the fires in Aigio and Diakopto. The farmer confessed and is currently being held in prison. In July, blazes were also reported on the mountains near the border with Fyrom and Albania, in Korinthos, on the islands of Ydra, Zakynthos, Skiathos, and Kithera, and in Attica on the Hymettus and Penteli mountains.

On August 24, 2007, fires broke out in the Peloponnese, Attica and Euboea. In the Peloponnese and in Euboea, the fires burned many villages and killed more than 60 people. Six people died in the town of Areopoli. The deadliest fire was near the town of Zacharo. It cost more than 30 lives, including those of a mother and her four children. Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis declared a state of emergency for the whole country and requested help from other members of the EU. Various countries responded to the call and sent help (CRJ 3:4). One thousand Greek soldiers were sent to the affected areas. In the early hours of August 25, fire broke out again on Mount Hymettus. Officials blamed the fires on arsonists, backed up by firefighters discovering many bottles with gasoline in affected areas. Arson is also suspected for the fires in the Peloponnese, as more than 20 fires started at about the same time, according to a Fire Service spokesman. During the afternoon, two blazes broke out in Keratea and

one in Markopoulo Mesogaias in East Attica.By August 31 there were fires still burning in Arcadia and Laconia.

From the very beginning of September, firefighters were still suppressing a strong blaze in the Peloponnese. The flames continued their destructive path in Arcadia and Mt Parnon in Laconia. On September 3 a lightning strike started a new fire on Mt Vermion, but this was soon brought under control. On September 5 the death toll reached 67, and was 68 by September 21. In October, 9,000 firefighters and 4,500 seasonal firefighters, with the assistance of 22 Canadair firefighting tanker jets and 13 hired helicopters, together with volunteers and local authorities, were still on 24-hour alert.

Huge effort

Only a huge effort by the fire brigade and firefighting aircraft prevented the flames from spreading to the historical town of Olympia – home of the Olympic Games. Nevertheless, the flames damaged an excavation area in the proximity. Nine firefighters and two pilots died, and it is unknown how many were seriously injured this summer. The first three firefighters died and another was seriously injured on the island of Crete when trapped by flames, owing to a sudden change in wind direction, according to authorities. In one terrible accident, a car crashed into a firefighting vehicle, resulting in a traffic jam at the site of one of the worst fires near Zacharo in Artemida. Nine people – among them three firefighters – were killed when they were engulfed by flames. A firefighter died of a heart attack while trying to battle a fire on the outskirts of the town of Areopolis. Two seasonal firefighters also lost their lives in the destructive fires on Euboea, the second largest Greek island, near the village of Mistros. A Canadair CL 415 firefighting plane crashedon July 23 while taking part in an operation to put out a major fire on the island of Evia. According to the Fire Brigade Operations Centre, the aircraft crashed into a mountain near Dilesos. Its two-man crew was found dead by a fire brigade Emergency Rescue Squad (EMAK), in an operation that employed two helicopters. During this period, Greece requested European civil protection assistance four times. The MiC immediately alerted the civil protection authorities of the 30 countries participating in the Community Civil Protection Mechanism and the request triggered a response during the first two heatwaves from Italy and France (twice), Portugal and Spain. After the disastrous fires in Aigio and Cephalonia, the Greek Prime Minister requested extra assistance from Russian Prime Minister Putin. Russia responded immediately and delivered five firefighting aircraft (aeroplanes and helicopters) to Greece. When the fires in August started and Prime Minister Karamanlis requested help from the members of the EU and other nations (see Table 1), many other countries also expressed their readiness to provide firefighting means and forces, as well as other assistance. An initial evaluation and assessment as to the cause of the devastating fires is as follows: Unusually long periods of extremely high temperatures causing a prolonged heatwave; prolonged drought; simultaneous strong winds; and arson, unintentional or deliberate, for financial or other motives. According to reports, more than 200,000 hectares of woodland were burnt in Greece this summer. Prime Minister Karamanlis said: “All forest land will, as of today, be included in the reforestation process. This isa clear message to all those who are plotting against our own quality of life and against the environment. A new forest shall grow to occupy the space left by the burned forest.”

The next challenge is serious and multifaceted. The environmental disaster must be addressed, assistance has to be provided to those affected by the fires and the disaster areas must be reconstructed. The Greek Government is already implementing a plan for immediate and mid-term measures to provide relief and ensure reconstruction.


Major Ioannis Kapakis is OperationalCentre Officer in General Secretariat for CivilProtection. He has served as a spokesman inthe Greek Fire Service for five years.

Comments (1)

John Woollen
Said this on 11-15-2010 At 02:37 pm

can anyone give me an update as to the situation in Zacharo regarding the alleged mis-use of funds donated to relieve the stricken villagers around Zacharo and is there any truth in the allegations that said funds were being used for developing hotels and leisure facilities on world heritage protected strips of coastal land illegally

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