Wildfires in Greece

July 21, 2007

Greek forest vegetation reflects the climate and topography of the country as well as the soil condition, which is generally quite poor. The influence of man, active in the area for more than three thousand years, is also reflected in the distribution and usually degraded condition of the forests. Drought-resistant evergreen broadleaved species (Quercus ilex, Laurus nobilis, Ceratonia siliqua, Olea europaea, Arbutus spp., Cistus spp., Erica spp., Pistacia spp. etc.), mostly forming shrublands, and pine trees (Pinus halepensis, Pinus brutia, Pinus pinea, etc.) occupy the lower elevations in the country (up to 300 m above sea level in northern Greece and 800 m in the south). Next, there is a zone of deciduous broadleaved species (Quercus spp., Fagus orientalis, Castanea vesca, etc.) and conifers (Pinus nigra, Pinus maritima, Cupressus sempervirens, Abies cephalonica, etc.) that reaches 900 m in the north and 1 200 m in the south. At higher elevations, up to 1 800 m, vegetation includes cold-tolerant broadleaved tree species (such as Fagus silvatica, Fagus moesiaca, Quercus sessiliflora, Quercus pedunculata, Populus tremula, Betula pendula, Fraxinus excelsior, Acer spp., etc.) and conifers (Pinus nigra, Pinus silvestris, Abies alba, etc.). Finally, at elevations up to 2 200 m, vegetation mostly includes cold tolerant conifers and a few broadleaved species (Picea excelsa, Abies alba, Pinus peuce, Pinus silvestris, Pinus heldreichii, Populus tremula, Sorbus aucuparia).

Forest flammability is generally high. The most flammable types are the pine forests (Pinus halepensis, Pinus brutia) and the shrublands at the lower elevations, by the sea, in the middle and southern part of the country. This vegetation is also adapted to fire either through cone serotiny (pines) or re-sprouting (shrubs).

Grazing of sheep and goats, traditional in the country, in recent times has become one of the main causes of wildfires. Many areas are overgrazed. Shepherds react to the resulting reduction of feed for the animals by burning to stimulate new growth of shrubs and grasses. However, as desirable plants gradually disappear due to overgrazing, the fire frequency increases. The soil is unprotected by vegetation when it is burned every few years and is soon eroded, resulting in lost site productivity and finally desertification. Often, when an area is denuded, fire is then used to convert forest land into grazing land, and the vicious cycle is repeated.

A large part of the fires increase is due to increased activity of people in or near the forests and forested lands. New roads and an ever-increasing number of private cars offered easier access to forests. The number of people leaving the cities in the summer, seeking cooler places along the coastline and in the mountain villages for their vacation, has gradually increased, increasing the probability of accidental fires. The same is true for international tourists who visit Greece every summer at the peak of the fire season. Most importantly, a trend that started in the late 1970s of building secondary summer housing along the coasts, accelerated in the 1980s. These housing areas were poorly planned, creating a troublesome urban/wildland interface and increasing the risk of wildfires. The activities of these people, starting with construction and continuing with their everyday activities (barbecues, burning debris, parking cars on cured grass, etc.) have very frequently resulted in accidental wildfires.

Another factor that led to increased forest arson in the 1980s and 1990s is a spin-off of the demand for land to build secondary summer housing and to develop tourist accommodations. This demand far exceeded supply, as most forests in Greece are public and protection laws make change of use very difficult. Furthermore, an exact and complete land register has only recently started to be developed. The lack of land for development drove prices extremely high, and the lack of a land register and poor law enforcement allowed those burning forested lands to illegally occupy them. On more than one occasion, many years later, when the number of people in this category became too many and it was evident that it would be practically impossible to evict them from the areas they had occupied, the Greek government legalized these occupied lands. In this way, a motive for arson was created.

The forests became denser and dead downed woody material increased as a result of the abandonment of villages, especially in mountainous areas, in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, as people immigrated abroad or moved to the big cities, mainly Athens. As dead forest biomass, especially around villages, stopped being used for cooking and heating as in the past, either due to decreasing population or due to replacement by oil, electricity and propane gas, it started building-up, making forests flammable right to the first houses of each village. Fires reaching there, rather than slowing down, now often burn homes and occasionally kill people.

In the past, resin collectors contributed to safer forests (mainly those of Pinus halepensis and Pinus brutia)by maintaining forest trails for their need to move from tree to tree and by managing the forest, selectively removing older trees that were useless to them in order to favour regeneration. Furthermore, since the forests were their field of production and the storage area of their product, they exercised maximum fire prevention care and immediately suppressed any fire. Unfortunately, by the end of the 1970s this profession started to slowly die out as the demand for resin decreased, income dropped, and no subsidies were provided by Greek or European Union policies.

The current climate change trend in the Mediterranean is provoking longer summer droughts and intensification of these droughts even out of season. Also, extreme weather events, such as periods of high temperatures, strong air dryness and very strong winds, as well as sudden storms with heavy rainfall in only few hours (an amount similar to the annual average rainfall in some areas), are becoming frequent. As a result large-scale forest fires are fostered, with consequent soil erosion in burnt areas further aggravated by the heavy rains.

One day of high temperatures, combined with very low humidity and strong winds are enough to activate an uncontrolled process.

Other factors that may cause fires are:
Fires provoked by sparks from powerlines, which in many cases are deliberately considered as from unknown origin.
Increase in number of visitors to forests.

The Forest Service, which is responsible for managing Greek forests, lacks personnel and resources and has concentrated on the management of the more valuable (in regard to timber quantity and quality) high-elevation forests. When the number of resin collectors decreased in the low-elevation pine forests, these forests were practically left unmanaged. Subsequently, they became more flammable, often impenetrable, and fighting fire in them became much more difficult.

Few forest fires in Greece are due to natural causes. Lightning-caused fires account for less than 3 percent of the total number of fires. The rest of the fires with known causes have been categorized as accidental, due to negligence or deliberately started.

A large number of fires are reported due to “unknown causes”. Most of them are suspected to be deliberately set. For example, 428 out of the 602 fires listed in the “unknown causes” category for 1988 are suspected to belong in the “deliberately set” category; 241 of them were probably started for rangeland improvement. A significant number of the “unknown causes” fires may be lightning caused, since determination of this cause can be quite tricky when a fire remains dormant and undetected for some time after a storm and then starts spreading when conditions became favourable.

In terms of importance, arson fires for land use change, fires from burning garbage dumps and power line fires are considered to be the worst since they usually occur on days with high wind. Shepherd fires are also a problem, both due to the cost of fighting them and to the fact that even when firefighting efforts are successful the shepherds merely wait for more difficult conditions and try again.

Greece has a serious fire problem. The money and effort devoted to coping with the problem is significant. Actually, especially in terms of aerial forces, the country should probably be rated first in the world on a per-hectare-protected basis. However, the poor results of the last few years clearly indicate that there is need for improvement, especially in regard to knowledge and organization of the whole effort. Also, there is a clear need for better managed forests and serious fire prevention efforts. The latter objective requires an upgraded and modernized Forest Service that will work in close cooperation with the Fire Service.

The Fire Service needs to improve its initial attack capability. Indirect attack should be recognized as a true alternative to direct attack and the methods for its application should become part of basic training at all levels. The ground forces should learn to rely less on the help of aerial forces because they may be unavailable under certain conditions (extreme winds, too many simultaneous fires, night hours). Also, the Fire Service should evaluate its pre-suppression planning in order to maximize the effectiveness of its forces, especially the aerial ones. Good cooperation with the Forest Service is clearly necessary.

Some of the improvements needed in the Forest Service are:

  • Hiring new permanent, competent staff;
  • Changes in structure that will permit a central policy to be applied in all regions, including training in modern concepts and methods;
  • A mission for active rangeland management by the Forest Service and education of shepherds; and
  • Active management of the low-elevation Aleppo and Brutia pine forests.

Of course, these changes in the Forest Service will require additional funding compared to the current low level, but in the long term will reduce damage and the cost of firefighting . Otherwise, given the natural flammability of Greek forests, the problem may become worse in spite of spending more money in the battle against forest fires.








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