Overview 2023: Greece
LESSONS NOT LEARNED
BY GAVRIIL XANTHOPOULOS, EMMANOUELA ZEVGOLI, KONSTANTINOS KAOUKIS AND MILTIADIS ATHANASIOU
The forest fire season of 2023 in Greece was one of the worst the country has experienced and has yet again highlighted the inadequacies of the Greek fire management system.
More than 140,000 hectares burned across the country, hundreds of structures were destroyed and unfortunately there were more than 20 fatalities.
One particular fire, in the prefecture of Evros near the border with Turkey, marked the season, as it lasted more than 15 days and burned more than 93,000 hectares, breaking by far the previous record of 55,000 hectares, in Northern Evia, in 2021. The Evros fire was probably the largest wildfire in recent European history. Despite the efforts of the Greek government and the implementation of a forest fire prevention program called Anti-NERO in preparation of the forest fire season, the forest fire suppression mechanism proved to be insufficient under difficult conditions.
The official fire season in Greece extends from May 1 to Oct. 30. Following a dry winter, the spring was particularly rainy. The rain started in mid-April and continued until the beginning of June, resulting in excessive growth of herbaceous vegetation. At the beginning of July, this vegetation was still green and the fire situation was quite mild. Then, the country was struck by one of the longest heatwaves ever recorded, according to the National Observatory of Athens; it lasted from July 12-26, with temperature exceeding 43 C in many parts of the country. Due to these extremely high temperatures, the green and wet herbaceous vegetation turned into dry and flammable fuel within a few days, increasing the potential of wildfires to ignite easily and spread very fast. And they did.
On July 17, a number of almost simultaneous fires near Athens, in Attica and Corinthia, put the reflexes of the firefighting mechanism to the test. Three of the fires – Saronida, Loutraki, and Dervenochoria – escaped initial attack and started threatening settlements and infrastructure, continuing for three days in spite of the very strong response with ground and aerial resources.
Following the doctrine established in the last few years, evacuation and protection of settlements became an absolute priority, allowing the fires to grow.
With all the emphasis on these fires, a new fire on the tourist island of Rhodes, on July 18, received relatively weak attention and aerial firefighting support. The realization of the high damage potential of the Rhodes fire came after the second day, when, under the influence of the strong north-northeast meltemi –wind that is characteristic of the Aegean sea in the summer – the fire started growing rapidly toward the southern coast of the island, threatening tourist installations. Meltemi usually blows from northerly directions in the central-eastern Aegean, and from north-westerly or occasionally westerly directions in the southeastern Aegean. Again, emphasis was on citizen evacuation with alert messages on mobile phones transmitted through the 112 Civil Protection emergency number; it was not an easy task but was carried out without casualties. More than 20,000 people, mainly tourists, were evacuated by civil protection, local authorities and the citizens of neighbouring villages. In some cases, residents and tourists had to evacuate on foot. The fire kept growing for five days, finally reaching the sea.
The burned area reached 20,661 hectares, and included parts of a previous large burn of 2008 that was under regeneration. Tourism was affected negatively for a few weeks but by the end of August there were already signs of recovery.
Simultaneously, on July 23, three forest fires started near the city of Aigio, in North Peloponnese, on the island of Corfu and near the town of Karystos in the south of Evia island. Again, there was extensive use of the emergency number 112, prompting evacuations of all villages in the general vicinity of the fires. The ground resources once again focused on saving property and evacuating civilians, leaving fire control to the aerial resources. On July 25, a fatal crash of a Canadair CL-215 waterbomber took place next to the village Platanistos, near Karystos. The plane was making its final drop on small flames before leaving to refuel; it was flying very low to maximize effectiveness and one of the wings hit the top of a tree. The damage resulted in loss of steering capacity and finally the plane crashed on the slope, killing the two pilots.
On July 26, with the passage of a cold front over the country, a series of fires started and grew rapidly, following wind velocity and direction changes. The most challenging were a large fire on the island of Corfu and a series of fires in Thesssaly and Phthiotida in the center of Greece. The later fires reached the outskirts of the city of Lamia and the industrial park of Volos. Most important, one of the fires, burning in light fuels, reached the Greek Air Force base near the town of Nea Anchialos, where it caused a huge explosion of ammunition. There were no fatalities, but the town, although at a distance of five kilometres, experienced serious damage.
On Aug. 18, a forest fire started in the prefecture of Evros, at a short distance from the border of Greece with Turkey to the north of the city of Alexandroupoli. It is believed that the fire was a restart of a lightningcaused fire that had been extinguished but was not guarded properly. The fire progressed under the influence of strong meltemi wind, escaped initial attack and grew quickly in size. Warning and evacuation messages on mobile phones through the 112 early warning system were sent extensively, in an effort to eliminate the risk of fatalities. The same pattern of focusing on village protection was repeated. By Aug. 21, 12 villages had been evacuated and the fire had become huge, burning thousands of hectares of forested and cultivated land (see photo 1). The next day (see photo 2), the Alexandroupoli hospital was evacuated and the patients moved into a ship at the port, as the fire approached and the air was filled with smoke and ashes. That same day, a second fire that had started a few kilometres to the north, in the national protected forest of Dadia, moved southwards and merged with the first. In doing so, the fire trapped 18 immigrants who had entered the country illegally and were trying to move through the forest. Two more fatalities were counted later, while 25 more immigrants were rescued by firefighters. The fire continued burning for 17 days, even after its front had reached and stopped at the sea, spreading along its western flanks and even turning northwards when the meltemi wind stopped for a few days. This fire became the largest on record in recent European history according to the Copernicus Emergency Management Service of the European Commission. The burned area is estimated at 93,500 hectares, including oak forest (Quercus sp.), pine forest (Pinus brutia and Pinus nigra), evergreen shrubs and agricultural land.
On Aug. 22, while the Evros fire was the focus of attention, a forest fire originating at more than one point started near Phyli, to the south of mount Parnis (or Parnitha) in Attica, at the outskirts of Athens (see photo 2). The evacuation scenario was repeated at the settlements (Aspropyrgos, Phyli, Agia Paraskevi, Agios Nikolaos, Acharnes, Thrakomakedones) and firefighting attention focused on protecting homes as the fire moved slowly up the mountain slopes against the meltemi wind. Although there were many firebreaks, including recently created or maintained ones in the frame of the Anti-NERO fire prevention program, and new ad-hoc firebreaks were opened with dozers overnight, the firebreaks were repeatedly compromised as they were not used appropriately. The fire continued for four days, finally burning 6,057 hectares and many houses and infrastructure. Most important, this fire was the final blow for the Parnitha national park, as it burned most of what had been spared from the devastating fires of 2007 and 2021 (see photo 3).
The difficult part of the fire season came quite suddenly to an end in September with the successive passage of two record-breaking storms that brought unprecedented amounts of rain, exceeding 900 millimetres in 24 hours in parts of Thessaly, and caused huge flooding damage. Added to the heatwaves and the huge fires, the storms served as a reminder of what the future may look like under climate change.
Looking back at this fire season, it becomes evident that little has been learned from the mistakes that were evident in the two previous fire seasons. The Civil Protection organization remained focused on fire suppression with new resources added every year. However, the firefighting doctrine has not changed and much of the control efforts are carried out from the roads, which, as a rule, are compromised.
Even existing and ad-hoc firebreaks are not used effectively to control intense fires, let alone the strips around the roads where understory vegetation has been removed.
Over-reliance on aerial resources continues.
As these measures control the flames but do not necessarily put-out the fire completely, without co-ordinated ground intervention away from roads, fire restarts are abundant and the fires continue for many days.
The firefighting weaknesses led to requests for international help. In response, firefighters and aerial resources came from other European countries (Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, France, Italy, Malta, Poland, Romania, Slovakia), in the frame of the RescEU mechanism of the European Union, and from countries outside the EU (Egypt, Jordan, Israel, Serbia, Turkey). The resources were very helpful. Once more, the tendency to evacuate all villages and towns in the general area of the fire became a contributing factor to the firefighting failures.
So far, the government seems convinced that all problems are due to the difficult conditions caused by climate change. Strong response is promised, ranging from heavier penalties for those who start fires, even inadvertently, to employing more than 100 drones for fire prevention in the near future. Aerial resources are going to be strengthened further as Greece is planning to order 12 CL-515 waterbombers as soon as they become available.
There do not seem to be any doubts about the firefighting doctrine and the failure of the one-sided emphasis on suppression.
Little is understood and planned regarding the requirement for a co-ordinated effort to improve the resilience of the agricultural and forestry landscapes.
The need for proper forest management by a renewed well-staffed and funded Forest Service, which has been neglected for years, started being discussed only after the 2023 disaster. Lessons have not been learned.