Greece is a country rich in coastline and mountains, with a Mediterranean climate and an incredible variety of vegetation. In the coastal and more low-lying areas olives and citrus fruits are cultivated, and vines extend to higher elevations, especially on the sunny slopes. The roadside stalls and the street markets attest to the wide range of seasonal fruit and vegetables produced in different regions, but the most striking feature of the countryside are the wooded areas and the scrub-covered grazing lands. Some of the mountains boast oak or beech woods and black pine, and in the higher ranges, below the barer alpine zone, there are forests of fir, but the tree that epitomises the Greek coastal landscape is the Aleppo pine, Pinus halepensis. The brilliant green of the Aleppo pine and its contrast with the blue of the Greek summer sky and the turquoise of the sea linger in the memory and the photographs of traveller as “Greece”.
The forests of Aleppo pine provide protection from erosion on the slopes. The wood of the Aleppo pine is not highly valued, but the mature trees in some areas continue to be a source of resin, of which the island of Evia produces up to 90% of the Greek crop. The “retsinades” (resin-men) patrol their allotted trees throughout the summer, slashing the bark to open a strip that bleeds the resin into plastic bags skillfully stapled to the trunk to catch every drop, and replacing the full bags which are emptied into the nearest resin tank. The technology may have changed a bit – 50 years ago the resin was collected in little tin cups – but the process remains labour-intensive, hot and sticky, and mules are still the best way of reaching some of the stands of pine. Beekeepers also erect their hives in the clearings.
Every summer there are hundreds of forest fires in Greece. It is estimated that about 50,000 hectares of forest are burned each year. The Aleppo pines, with their high resin content, burn particularly well, and the explosion of the burning cones spreads sparks far and wide, igniting other trees in a wide circle, often giving rise to elaborate conspiracy theories of multiple arson. The pattern is as often as not a natural one, even if the first spark is ignited by human action.
When a major forest fire gets under way, a predictable series of events is put into motion. The fire service responds to the call and the appropriate dousing measures are activated. The media appear soon after, eager to fill their airtime in the quiet summer months (I mean, inform the public). The videos accompanying the first breathless TV descriptions usually have a faint “archive footage” watermark in one corner, as one shot of an ageing yellow Canadair dropping water on flaming Aleppo pines is much like another. A Government Minister cuts short his vacation and is rushed to the scene to “coordinate the operation” (I say “his” because it always seems to be a male minister on such occasions, and he makes sure that the TV cameras are rolling to capture his arrival). The same, or another, minister and the local MP are subsequently filmed looking serious, meeting with the representatives of local groups whose property or livelihood have been affected, and making concerned statements. Soon after this, an opposition leader and/or local MP visits to be filmed expressing outrage at the tardiness and incompetence of the government efforts and the lack of sensitivity to the interests of the local population. Occasionally, things turn ugly.
Meanwhile the TV, radio and newspaper coverage consists of a recombination of stock phrases: “πύρινη λαίλαπα” (pyrini lailapa, fiery whirlwind), “δύσβατη περιοχή” (dysvati periochi, difficult-to-reach spot), “θυελλώδεις άνεμοι” (thyellodeis anemoi, gusty winds) the last two used as explanations for why the fire engines and planes/helicopters, respectively, have not yet extinguished the fire. The firefighters are making “υπεράνθρωπες προσπάθειες” (yperanthropes prospatheies, superhuman efforts) and the pilots are all heroes. There is the inevitable “vox pop” with a distraught homeowner clad in baggy shorts and flip-flops wielding a small hose or broom. “Where is the State?” they cry, as they try to protect the house they was happy for the State to ignore when they erected it illegally on forest land (a common land-use pattern already noted by the archaeologist of the future).
When the wind drops and the flames are replaced by charred stumps, comes the announcement of the vast area of forest and scrub that was burnt, along with the beehives and sometimes olive and fruit trees or flocks of sheep or goats “but fortunately there was no loss of life, and no homes were damaged”. There are promises of compensation for the local communities, and an opportunity for a demonstration of largesse by those in control of the funds or enforcement mechanisms, with the implied expectation of deferred political reciprocity somewhere down the line. The next event, sometimes avoided, takes place when the first torrential rains arrive and wash down the hillsides unimpeded, denuding them of soil, and carrying rocks, rubble and mud down to block the roads and flood the fields and villages, and the drama resumes.
This series of events was re-enacted this summer, when fire broke out on 30 July near a village in central Evia and in high winds spread rapidly through the magnificent Aleppo pine forests that the area is famed for. There had been a similar fire in the same area in 1977, and the forest was just regaining its former splendour; Aleppo pine regenerates naturally when protected from humans and goats. Within hours the flames had crested the hills to the west and were threatening the attractive coastal town of Limni and a well-known neighbouring seaside monastery. The nuns were evacuated along with holiday-makers camping by the sea. The town was saved and the politicians duly arrived, in this case the local MP and (coincidentally) Minster for Agricultural Development, Vangelis Apostolou, who wrote an account praising the efforts of the responders and promising special easements to those affected. The Environment Minister Yiannis Tsironis, also paid a visit, during which he promised the retsinades compensation and gave the rights for retrieving firewood from the burnt areas to a local cooperative. The Forestry Service was charged with organising anti-flooding measures on the burned hillsides. Opposition leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis put in the obligatory appearance and inspected the area in a freshly pressed smart-casual shirt and suspiciously clean tennis shoes.
The fire at Limni was by no means exceptional; large fires in Greece this summer destroyed large parts of the islands of Chios and Thasos, including extensive cultivated areas. An article about forest protection entitled “Bitter Lessons” written by the then head of the firefighting department of the Forestry Department was republished to mark the occasion – as relevant today as it had been at its original publication in 2008, and a reminder that the lessons haven’t in fact been learned.
It is no exaggeration to say that the elaborate ritual of fire response described above actively discourages the learning of any lessons. The clamour of the fire engines and the human drama of evacuations serve as a noisy distraction from a series of crucial policy failures around forest management that have unfolded in Greece over recent decades. The formulaic language used gives us some clues. The lens through which the media and political culture present forest fires almost seems designed to sensationalise the event itself, and invoke an emotional reflex rather than a reasoned response – to render the audience helpless so as to capture its eyeballs and votes. The fire is a “natural disaster” and the appropriate response is first heroism, followed by sympathy, and eventually a handout. This tweet by a governing party MEP in the aftermath of this summer’s fires exemplifies the genre:
We know what he is getting at, of course; this is a clearly styled and branded political message to the EU. But the clichés in which it is cloaked, and which are routinely trotted out on such occasions across the political spectrum, are not merely tokens of sloppy thinking but are actively harmful. At best, they encourage unquestioning passivity and the shrugging off of responsibility; at worst they fuel destruction in exchange for financial compensation and political patronage. Indeed, recent research has shown a link between the severity of forest fires and election cycles (areas burned in election years have been 2.5 times the area burned in non-election years) that suggests anything but a natural cycle. We would be well advised to heed the well-publicised verdict on a major disaster in another part of the world, Hurricane Katrina, that “there’s no such thing as a natural disaster”, and ask the tough questions about the human factor in such events, the extent to which our individual and collective choices, economic, social and political, have shaped the catastrophic outcome:
If a tree falls in a forest – to make illegal firewood or build a holiday home – and no one is around to hear it – for their own reasons, perhaps a backhander, a vote, or simply the desire for “a quiet life” – does it still make a sound? We should really be considering the impact it has on everyone’s pocket and quality of life. When an individual choses to put themselves and their property in harm’s way by illegally encroaching on a high risk zone – where they also consequently increase the risk of fire – can they truly be considered victims of a “natural disaster”? Or are they in fact passing on the risk and cost of their actions to the rest of society? When a local official or national politician turns a blind eye to encroachment or tacitly rewards its outcomes, is that just a cheap inconsequential favour, or is it in fact a very costly one for those not directly involved in the transaction? And what do we prioritise through our democratic processes? Are we allocating our dwindling national resources in the wisest way? It should quickly become apparent that you don’t have to be a card-carrying tree-hugger to care.
The overwhelming emphasis on safeguarding life and property, which is also made to seem “natural” in the context of fire reporting (because what kind of misanthrope wouldn’t be concerned about casualties?), has its own policy and political hinterland. Before 1998 the responsibility for extinguishing forest fires in Greece was shared by three independent agencies: the bulk of the responsibility lay with the Forestry Department of the Ministry of Agriculture, which complemented this activity with extensive prevention and protection measures; the aerial means, which came under the authority of the Air Force (Ministry of Defence), but was coordinated by the forestry service; and the Fire Department (Ministry of Public Order) which was responsible for residential areas, and whose vehicles were restricted to paved roads, and which being a uniformed service did not take orders from others outside their hierarchy. The army could also be called in to help on the ground.
Legislation passed in 1998 by the Simitis government under the direction of the EU separated the responsibility for the extinguishing of forest fires from that of prevention, and allocated it exclusively to the Fire Department, ostensibly in the interests of conforming with the practice in most of the other member states (N.2612/1998). The Fire Department was also allocated generous funding for equipment and training of staff. The accumulated experience of several generations of foresters in controlling fires in the forests and their knowledge of the local terrain and network of forest roads, were lost overnight. The younger foresters were probably relieved to be spared the extra firefighting duties, which typically involved shift work over the holiday period. The Fire Department, accustomed to easy access to flaming buildings took a long time to adjust to the very different circumstances of wildfire in the forest, and have never really appeared to relinquish their original priorities – hence their much repeated statement that “there has been no loss of lives or property”, and their apparent reluctance to leave the paved roads. The efforts to control fires in the forest now rely heavily on the aerial means and become concerted on the ground only when a village becomes threatened. The division of funding – 35% for protection and 65% for fighting fires – has curtailed the Forestry Service’s ability to apply effective protection measures.
Almost 20 years later there has been no systematic effort to make a proper assessment of the results of the transfer, but the conclusions of the one published attempt are negative, based on numbers of fires, hectares destroyed, means deployed and cost. Every year, an average of €357 million is spent on forest protection, of which €230 million goes purely to extinguishing fires. In addition, the study highlights that the annual cost of fighting forest fires in Greece dwarfs the equivalent expenditure in the US and Canada, countries with a much higher incidence of wildfires per head of population.
It was probably unfortunate that in the first years in which the Fire Department took charge the summers were particularly conducive to forest fires, and some particularly rapidly-spreading fires occurred, including some with loss of life to fire-fighters. Following these events, there seems to be a tacit agreement that the appropriate terms to describe their efforts are heroism and tragedy, rather than inexperience or, dare we say it, lack of competence. And in the apparent gaps left by the official response, some of the volunteers keen to take on the hero’s mantle have less than pure motives – witness the recent appearance of Golden Dawn groups in insignia among the first responders, and their eagerness to publicly mourn those fallen in the line of duty.
But there is an even more fundamental misplacement of priorities behind the vicious cycle of forest fires. Yiayia happened to visit Limni a few weeks after the fire in the company of a friendly expert, who had this to say:
“In the last 30-40 years there have been extensive forest fires, which have destroyed large areas of coniferous trees and shrubs in the Eastern and Western Mediterranean. These fires have sometimes been caused by lightning in summer storms, but are usually anthropogenic. Forest fires are not 100% avoidable, but their incidence can be managed. The opening up of road systems in mountainous areas has allowed easy access of more people to the forest areas (though also facilitating the approach of firefighters). In the critical dry windy summer months when the low vegetation is dry, the danger of fire is greatest and the conditions are ideal for rapid spread and unfavourable for easy control, despite the deployment of large numbers of firefighters and their variety of equipment (fire engines, aeroplanes, helicopters, etc.).
Forest fires of this extent and intensity cause incalculable damage, economic and ecological, to a region. All the resources and the beneficial effects for the people and for the stability of the environment (enrichment of the atmosphere with oxygen, provision of forest products, regulation of the flow of rainwater, protection from erosion, natural conservation of biodiversity, not to mention human enjoyment and recreation) are obliterated in the course of a few hours. It is estimated that the reestablishment of these forests takes 30 to 50 years, depending on the type of trees and their capacity for regeneration, and the soil and climatic conditions in the area. Especially where the area is characterized by steep slopes, when there are heavy rainstorms soon after a fire, there is danger of even greater damage through soil erosion and landslides, and flooding in the land below.
In the management of forests as a national natural resource, we seem to have our priorities wrong, focussing on the emergency response measures of extinguishing forest fires rather than investing in preventive measures. This would be a less expensive approach, resulting in less damage to the environment.
Preventive measures would include: a good network of firebreaks; maintenance of the forest road network for easy access; annual clearing of the dry roadside vegetation; defence measures in the summer months such as forest outlook posts and patrols; enforcement of restrictions of hazardous activities in the summer months (burning of rubbish, campfires, welding, etc.); better public education on the importance of the forest for our health, physical and psychological, and how to avoid hazardous activities; and, long-term, cultivation in schools of love and respect for the forest and the environment in general, by people who themselves know and love the forest. None of this is new of course, but it has never been consistently applied.”
This all agrees nicely with the Yiayia philosophy on preventive medicine, which also takes a back seat in our national allocation of priorities to rampant antibiotic use. Here, too, we need a change in the prevailing wind. For now, let us hope that the anti-flooding measures are in place by the time the autumn rains come to Limni, bringing the first wild cyclamen from the corms that will miraculously have survived the fire.
With contribution from Atlantis Host and a forestry expert who wished to remain anonymous.