By Gavriil Xanthopoulos and Miltiadis Athanasiou
(Photos by the authors)
The 2018 fire season in Greece started out quietly. The weather was quite favorable, with above average precipitation and lack of strong winds and/or heat waves. But on July 23rd – things changed dramatically. On that tragic day, a wildfire in Northeastern Attica set a new record for fire fatalities in Greece, and became the second deadliest fire in the world for this century. One hundred people were killed and 150 more injured. More than 1,650 homes burned along with 1,431 hectares (5.5 square miles) of agro-forestry vegetation and urbanized land. We provide a synoptic overview of what happened that day and identify the major factors contributing to the disaster in the hope of helping Greece and other countries to avoid similar tragedies in the future.
The information is sourced from:
- Video footage and photographic material of numerous citizens uploaded on social media. Most people were located, contacted, and in many cases interviewed in person.
- Interviews with professional and volunteer firefighters who worked on the fire perimeter.
- Interviews with locals during numerous visits in the area immediately after the fire, including residents who chose to leave and many who decided to stay, accepting the risk of entrapment.
- Data and information reported in the mass media, by public agencies, and in photos.
July 23rd was the first day of the 2018 season for which a “very high” fire danger rating (class 4 in the 1-5 range) had been assigned in the region of Attica, and to a large part of southeastern continental Greece, in the Fire Danger Prediction map issued daily by the General Secretariat for Civil Protection. This rating was due to a forecast of strong to extreme westerly winds.
At 12:03 that day, the first fire erupted on Mount Geraneia in western Attica, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) west of Athens near the town of Kineta, which is surrounded by forest. Fanned by the strong wind, it grew rapidly and swept through Kineta destroying many houses. It then spotted over the six-lane national road that connects Athens with Peloponnese, reaching the sea where it threatened a large oil refinery. It was the high risk to people and property in the Kineta wildland-urban interface (WUI), to the travelers on the national road (where traffic had to be stopped for hours), and to the oil refinery, that forced the Fire Service to dispatch a very large portion of ground and aerial firefighting resources in Attica to the affected area.
While attention and resources were concentrated in western Attica, a second wildfire erupted on Mount Penteli at 16:41 in the northeastern part of the Attica region (Figure 1). The start was within the perimeter of an August 2009 wildfire in the settlement of Daou Pentelis, roughly 5.2 km west of the coast. According to weather measurements at the National Observatory of Athens on Mt. Penteli, upwind of the fire, the prevailing wind was WNW with speeds ranging from 32 to 56 km/h for the first two hours after the fire start, with gusts of 50 to 89 km/h. Temperature didn’t exceed 31℃ and relative humidity varied between 34% and 43% RH making the probability of spotting relatively low. Until that day, the season had been much wetter than usual and the vegetation was not water stressed.
In eastern Attica on the 20th of July, the older needles of the primary tree species, Aleppo pine, had a moisture content of 100% while new needles registered 133%. The leaves of the Eastern Mediterranean evergreen shrubs Kermes oak and lentisk were at 83% and 97% respectively. The dwarf, spiny, Pink Rock-Rose shrubs were at 112%, with Thyme at 80%. Even with this unusually high moisture content, and with relatively limited spotting, the intense winds were able to generate a high rate of spread (ROS) via surface or passive crown fire. Much of the initial run of this second fire took place in an area that had burned thirteen years earlier on July 28, 2005. Moving eastwards towards the settlement of Neos Voutzas, the fire spread through jumbled ravines and gorges and up several leeward, steep slopes. Fuels consisted of Mediterranean shrubs, a few scattered olive groves, and stands of Aleppo pine.
As the catabatic wind (named from the Greek word κατάβασις or katabasis – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katabasis%22%20%5Co%20%22Katabasis), meaning “descending”) blew towards the sea through rough topography, meteorological conditions in the draws were affected by higher wind velocities, higher temperatures, and lower relative humidity. Αt the Hellenic National Meteorological Service station at Rafina, near the sea, temperature reached 38oC and RH dropped to 17% at 16:45. Gale force winds resulted in high ROS from the first stages of the fire. It’s estimated that five minutes after its eruption, the wildfire perimeter length was about 400 meters and the first house was already in flames. Within the next 35 minutes the perimeter length was more than 3,500 m, having formed two fingers ‑ one spreading southeast and the other to the east (Fig. 2).
Twenty minutes later the perimeter was at least 6,000 m as it approached the western boundary of the settlement of Neos Voutzas. After reaching Neos Voutzas, the fire spread faster eastward through the central and southern part of the settlement, and approached Marathon Avenue with an impressively rapid downslope run. The left flank of the fire spread northeastward along a narrow, deep gorge that forms the north boundary of the settlement. It traveled through mature, dense pine forest that had not seen fire recently, spreading more slowly but with higher intensity while making quick, topography-driven, upslope runs. Reaching Marathon avenue, the length of the perimeter had exceeded 11 km.
At the foot of Neos Voutzas Hill the fire became a high intensity passive crown fire, then quickly transformed into a high intensity, wind-driven, active crown fire. With flame lengths exceeding 20-30 meters it crossed Marathon Avenue, heading towards the coast through a mixture of homes and pines in the settlement of Mati, having morphed into a rapidly advancing active, and at times even independent crown fire. Many witnesses reported that the fire arrived with random, intermittent ignition of crowns above their heads, as hot gases were pushed forward by the extreme wind.
After crossing Marathon avenue, the faster fire finger, roared through Mati at a ROS of approximately 4 km/h, followed by many other fire fingers that advanced rapidly, almost concurrently, towards the coast. The head of the faster finger reached the sea in less than two hours after fire eruption. Given that the distance (straight line) between the eruption site and the coast is roughly 5.2 km, the mean ROS was 2.6 km h-1. Such ROS is not very rare, but the erratic fire behavior with bursts of ROS exceeding even 5 km/h for short periods of time explains the difficulty of the situation.
The high growth rate of the fire perimeter, the delayed arrival of fire trucks because of the focus on Kineta, and the difficulty of employing aerial resources due to wind, can explain, among other factors, why suppression efforts were not successful.
Panic and Loss: Unprepared. Uninformed.
As the fire was approaching there was no warning or direction from local authorities or other community leaders. This, along with the lack of any preparatory measures for fire protection (settlement fire plan, citizen education or home preparation) increased the risk and damage. The fast rate of spread surprised residents, motorists, and visitors who happened to be in the area. The smoke and hot gases being pushed ahead of the fire by the strong wind made it difficult to see and breathe, causing panic.
While many people made quick decisions, either moving out of the fire’s path in time or sheltering in their homes (which in Greece are generally built with non-flammable materials), many others tried to escape at the last moment in their cars where they were immediately caught in the traffic jam that formed in the narrow streets near the sea. Some perished near their cars while others continued to try to reach the water. Some could not find a passage and found themselves at the crest of a sea cliff, trapped, with the fire behind them. Others managed to get into the water but were exposed to heat and smoke for hours as rescue boats came hours later. Others did not survive, including victims who drowned trying to swim away from the coast to escape the unbearable conditions.
Aftermath: Seeking Knowledge and Solutions
The specialized teams that meticulously investigated the site after the fire were able to locate the bodies of 83 victims. An additional seventeen people died in the hospital during the following days, while a few more are still hospitalized as of this writing. The total death toll currently stands at 100 fatalities. In addition to the unimaginable suffering and loss, this catastrophe left a very strong impression to the public, created extensive finger-pointing between agencies, and generated intense political conflict. The lack of knowledge or guidance among residents regarding fire preparation and response became the major issue.
In September 2018, the government appointed an Independent Committee of wildfire experts to shed light on the deeper causes of the worsening wildfire problem in Greece and propose solutions, while scientists continued to identify lessons to be learned from this tragic event. The Committee completed and delivered its report to the Prime Minister in February 2019. In March, twenty current and former Greek officials were charged for their alleged failures to respond to the situation. Some lessons learned bear a strong resemblance to those identified in similar disasters around the world. Others are necessarily attributed to the Greek reality regarding fire policies, organization and cooperation of relevant agencies, and public education, along with ongoing development and expansion of settlements. Efforts must focus on medium to long-term improvements that will mitigate fire management problems and risk in order to prevent future disasters like this.
About the Authors
Gavriil Xanthopoulos is an IAWF board member and works with the Hellenic Agricultural Organization “Demeter”, Institute of Mediterranean Forest Ecosystems, Athens, Greece. [email protected].
Miltiadis Athanasiou works in wildfire management consulting and training, based in Acharnes, Attica, Greece. He was awarded a 2014 IAWF scholarship for his graduate studies and wrote a background on fires in Greece for Wildfire Magazine in April 2018 (https://www.iawfonline.org/article/greece-to-measure-and-document-wildfire-behavior-and-share-the-research-findings-with-those-who-can-apply-the-lessons/). [email protected].
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