Sunday, 23 August 2009

The problem of flareups

Firefighters battling the blazes east of Athens faced rapid flareups where they had previously put out fires during the day on Sunday. There does not seem to be a co-ordinated enough process to ensure that what is put out stays put out.

This is the main complaint made by residents to media, since they are usually the first to notice new fires while they are still small. Aware that the fire service is caught in a triage process, devoting assets only if their situation worsens dramatically, they have taken to beating the flames with branches and spraying them with garden hoses wherever they can, assisted by volunteers.

Still, the fire service seems to have picked up its rate of response through the day, indicating that it may have broken the back of this devastating fire that began on Friday night. For example, fires were extensive in Pallini and Pikermi, just east of Athens, on Sunday morning, whereas the response time was faster in Agios Stefanos and Kaletzi by evening, resulting in smaller burnt areas.

Agios Stefanos, a few kilometres northeast of the city, flared up in the middle of the day but was out by about 4pm. Kaletzi, about 15 kilometres northeast of the city, was reported to be flaring up around that time, but by 630pm it was out, having burnt only a few acres of trees.

I saw the ease with which wood re-inflames itself off Pendeli Square, in the eastern suburbs. Fire reached the front yards of houses off the square in the middle of the day. It nestled in some piles of dead wood in an untended plot and jumped from there to the branches of a large Aleppo pine.

A fire truck put it out once, followed by a municipal water tanker a second time. It reignited yet a third. It was left to a few young men and women with buckets of water and branches to carry on the fight.

One of them climbed a ladder and took a saw to a flaming branch. It was too thick to cut. Another climbed up with a bucket of water and doused the limb. But it was a small victory in a small yard. Around the volunteers smoke filled the air and helitankers circled overhead like angry wasps in an orange sky, a reminder that the size of this task requires superhuman machinery.

Much of this machinery has been mustered, leading to a new high in resources at hand: The fire service reported 162 fire trucks, 70 tanker trucks, 14 water-bombing airplanes and seven helitankers in operation in Attica on Sunday. The fire service had 650 men in the field, and army hundreds more. This buildup may have played a key role in allocating resources to fires quickly enough to prevent them from becoming unmanageable.

Co-ordination seemed to be another problem. Residents on Pendeli stood in the doorways of their houses and flagged passing tanker trucks and fire trucks like taxis. These vehicles did not seem to have specific instructions. They patrolled and stopped randomly to spray a flareup here or there, and seemed amenable to instructions from locals.

The armed forces say they have been actively involved putting out fires, not merely patrolling burnt areas. I saw them with bladders on their backs which were connected to spouts for spraying, and platoons with shovels and pickaxes were also deployed.

The pine forests of eastern Attica have been devastated. Thousands of acres on the southern, eastern and northern slopes of Mount Pendeli lie blackened and smoking. Around Marathon Lake, considered by generations of Athenians a spot of particular beauty, the forests are gone.

Some fronts remained active by evening in Nea Makri, Mount Kithairon and the area of the ancient site of Rhamnous. Should they burn until nightfall removes aircraft from operation, there is a chance that they could present the fire service with a new challenge on Monday.

Inevitably after these fires people argue about how they started and whether the fire service strategised its response well. But the key question is what is being done to prevent them. Why forest floors are not cleared, dead wood cut away from trees and networks of early warning heat sensors installed in the forest are the questions the government has to answer.


    I am an Athenian by birth but a resident of Pacific Palisades in CA. We have fires too....
    It is terrible and very tragic when it happens here or there. But here in CA we live in a desert and in the hills....There is price to be paid....
    For a few years now we have had a bad drought in CA. I hope there are no human casualties in Greece but the fire season has just started.....Lets hope for the best for you and us here...

    Be Well
    Maria T. Lymberis, MD

  2. Thank you for the posts on the fires. I am a California resident, and survivor of the San Diego wildfires of fall of 2007 which wiped out 1/3 of the homes in my neighborhood (sparing mine luckily). Wildfires are an inescapable and necessary part of nature, but the same is not true of arson, nor of the apparent lack of coordination of the response, nor of the lack of will to ensure that the tragic lessons of Greece's summer of 2007 fires are taken to heart. While the destruction of property and the disruption of lives is deplorable, I am sorry to say that the majority of the blame rests with the country's citizens who tolerate the status quo and fail to demand accountability from their elected officials. In February 2009, Greece was the host country for an international conference on better ways of detecting and combatting wildfires. Countries from around the qworld sent delgates, and the speakers made many excellent recommendations about how Greece could avoid a repeat of the summer of 2007. Alas, due to political shortsightedness and a fear of being held responsible, neither the the Hellenic Fire Brigade nor the Ministry of the Interior sent a single senior representative to the conference. A foretaste of things to come in August 2009 it would appear.


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