Friday, 6 July 2007

Detect, prevent, extinguish and reforest

THE LOSS of at least 4,000 hectares of forest in two days last week is an environmental disaster that we are unlikely to make up in the next generation. Half of that grim tally consisted of pine and shrubs in the southern reaches of Mount Pelion, which can eventually recover. The forest that burned on Parnitha, however, consisted of firs over a century old. 

Firs are notoriously slow growers, and only thrive in the shade and humidity provided by a vanguard. Forestry experts who have learned from a reforestation experiment at Mount Mainalo in the Peloponnese say that in today's warming climate, it will be very difficult to resurrect Parnitha.

The tragedy of Parnitha is that it was a badly strategised and narrowly lost battle. Firefighters were called to Dervenohoria on the evening of June 27 to extinguish a relatively small blaze, possibly caused by a power transformer, but their pump was broken. A second vehicle was unable to put out the fire before nightfall and high winds whipped it out of control. The fire brigade then allowed the fire to gallop across 15 kilometres of forest, reaching the Parnitha National Park. Residents had been doing a better job with shovels and branches, the Dervenohoria mayor suggests.

The fire brigade is not the only one to blame, however. The interior, development and public order ministries and their respective services revealed disgraceful malcoordination and bureaucratic jealousy.

Parnitha was perhaps condemned on the second day of the fire by a bizarre decision, according to Public Order Minister Vyron Polydoras, not to deploy water-scooping planes for fear that they should disrupt the power supply by shedding their loads on high-voltage lines. The Public Power Corporation declares that it shut down power to those lines, but the fire brigade says it was never informed.

Pelion, too, might have been saved, but was deprived of firefighting planes in the critical early hours because those had been dispatched to a blaze at Agia in Thessaly.

Greece needs to come to terms with the fact that we are becoming a warmer, more highly inflammable planet. In this environment, the measure of the fire brigade's effectiveness will be the periods of high stress on resources.

Last week was a case in point. The fire brigade answered calls to over 1,300 forest fires in June, but 317 of them started during the three days of the June 26-28 heatwave, when temperatures touched 46 degrees Celsius. Any one of them might have developed into a major conflagration.

If the country is to deal effectively with its hotter future, substantial new measures need to be taken in fire detection, prevention and extinction.

Other Mediterranean countries have successfully installed extensive networks of heat sensors and cameras in forests that alert them to fires. Pasok toyed with such a system in the late 1980s, and the idea is making a comeback. The municipality of Omiroupoli on Chios is installing a system in the autumn. Today Greece has vastly improved infrastructure to monitor such information; its quarter-of-a-billion-euro Olympic security system is designed to feed information from remote sensors to command bunkers. We should take advantage of this with a pilot scheme in forests that lie near cities.

Prevention is perhaps the most neglected, and important, stage. Building and maintaining fire breaks and clearing the forest floor of tinder are unglamorous jobs that used to be done by interested locals, who also reaped free firewood. The budget for such work to be taken over by contractors is nonexistent.

A bureaucratic problem is about to be added to the budgetary one. Earlier this year Polydoras announced the reinstatement of the forestry service for fire prevention but not extinction. The service has always been underfunded. For two decades it has fought a losing battle with the fire brigade to maintain its firefighting jurisdiction. It lost Attica in the late 1980s and the rest of Greece in 1998. It is now unlikely to relish the role of second fiddle to its nemesis. Since city fire brigades understand forests less well than the fire brigade, an attempt to amalgamate the two forces seems in order.

Underinvestment in prevention is particularly unjustified in light of the fact that 24 million European Union euros earmarked for forest protection in the 2000-2007 financial perspective was left untouched by Greece.
Effective extinction is a matter of time. Unchecked early on, fires pick up speed, temperature and size to the point where they literally cannot be fought. In such cases the fire usually has to be ambushed at the next firebreak or road, but even such a defensive line is not guaranteed to hold.

In order to be effective, therefore, the fire brigade must invest in its ability to respond in the early moments of a fire. Although Greece has one of the biggest fleets of water-scooping aircraft globally, recent experience has shown that twenty-two Canadairs aided by helicopters are no longer enough to service the country in summer. Last September, planes were again in short supply during simultaneous large-scale fires in Halkidiki and Mani, because some had been dispatched to control blazes in the Ionian.

Expanding the firefighting fleet is not cheap. Canadair CL-415 planes cost almost as much as an F16 fighter jet - about 35 million euros. One alternative to consider is the Russian Beriev Be-200. At 40 million euros it is better value for money, because it can drop 12 tonnes of water at once - twice as much as the Canadair.
Perhaps the most important measure for Greece, though, is reforestation and afforestation of barren hillsides. With annual losses a given (they have averaged 4,700 hectares a year in the first five years of this century) playing defence is a losing strategy. An investment of 5,000 hectares a year in new growth would bring us even. Double or triple that investment would reverse past losses and contribute significantly to Greece's Kyoto commitment to combat greenhouse gases.

New Democracy should start planning now. The hillsides around Athens are more bare than wooded. Fresh water is available from the sewage treatment plant in Psyttaleia, currently being dumped into the sea. After World War Two, two people showed what could be done when they turned the hillsides around Kaisariani Monastery into a paradise. The state cannot do less. 

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