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The History — and Future — of Greek Firefighting

wildfires in Greece
The Greek Firefighting Brigade was called to manage more than 1,300 fires in Greece in the early days of August this year. Credit: Lotus R Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.

The history of Greek firefighting throughout the years and how it may best function in the future is now under scrutiny. Wildfires scorched more acres than have ever been burned before during August.

Wednesday in the Greek Parliament, verbal blows were exchanged on how wildfires across the country were managed and mismanaged as 1300 separate blazes broke out in the early days of August.

Addressing Parliament on Wednesday, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis stated “In this tragedy we are measuring how many hectares were lost. In the previous tragedy we were counting coffins.”

Text alerts and door knocks by police going house to house ensured citizens were indeed evacuated in a safe and timely fashion this year. These methods did not save forests or homes. Firefighters were not able to protect wild life and structures from being torched by out-of-control wildfires.

Forest fires burn in Greece every summer — so why does it appear the government was unprepared and why was civil protection apparently mismanaged?

MPs and eventually technocrats will scrutinize the coordination, command and lapses within the firefighting corps that led to out-of-control wildfires scorching 250,000 hectares across Greece. A brief look back at the firefighting body and how it was organized offers a historical perspective.

In the last decade, Greeks are more aware of the brave men and women facing raging fires across Greece, as wildfires have been increasing along with seasons of drought as well as higher incidences of arson.

“Be Brave and Save”

The motto of the Greek Firefighting Brigade is “Tharsein Sozein” in Greek, which translates to “Be Brave and Save.”

merryweather firefighting engine
A Merryweather engine that was part of the Greek Firefighting Brigade from 1887. Image courtesy of the Greek Firefighting Museum.

The Greek Firefighting Brigade dates back to the formation of the newly independent nation, suddenly free from 400 years of Ottoman rule.

In 1833, with the establishment of the Kingdom of Greece, responsibility for firefighting was given to the individual prefectures and municipalities. In 1854 the Firefighting Corps was formed in Athens as part of the Greek Army, and it was expanded in 1861 into a two-unit formation.

In 1914 the corps was expanded to other cities outside Athens, covering Thessaloniki, Patras and Piraeus. The Firefighting Brigade was under military control at that time.

In 1926, the Firefighting Brigade was set up as a separate branch within the military, but that proved ineffective. In 1929, Alkiviadis Kokkinakis, a Greek immigrant from Russia, who was the former head of the Saint Petersburg Fire Service, was tasked with reforming the service. In 1930, the Fire Service was reconstituted as an independent national authority under the Ministry of the Interior.

Initially, Forest Guards and forest firefighting were organized under one authority. The first agency for the protection of forests and fields was founded in 1836 as the Rural Police. In 1956, the Rural Police was reorganized, becoming part of the Ministry of Public Order. In 2011, the Rural Police was disestablished and its services were passed to the various regional forest services.

These various regional forest services, grouped as the Forest Guard, form part of the Ministry of Agricultural Development and provide services all over the nation, known in Greek as the Dasofylakeio.

The question is how the Firefighting Brigade and the Forest Guard authorities will be transformed in the coming years, in order to respond to the challenges of the climate crisis in the forest ecosystems and their biodiversity.

According to Antigone Karadonta, a professor of forestry at the University of Thessaly, in 1914, the law on forest fires established that the Forest Guard was the only competent service for extinguishing forest fires, until forest firefighting was assigned to the Fire Brigade in 1998.

This change has been criticized as it removed the cooperative efforts within the Forest Guard authority. There were forest rangers as well as forest firefighters that were on the ground locally, who were familiar with the terrain and idiosyncrasies of the area.

International practice states that forest fires are dealt with in the forest and clearly before gaining strength, especially during periods of drought, such as the one experienced through August.

“Lumberjacks, resin collectors, and beekeepers comprise the population of the forest.  They live in the forest and for them it is a source of life,” stated Karadonta. These individuals can easily assist and be enlisted by a local operation of forest firefighters. And apparently the government is now taking that expert advice.

“We will set up a special unit that will be able to operate more effectively in the forests. This new unit, which will consist of foresters and forest firefighters, will act better in the forest,” added Mitsotakis. He noted that the transfer for forest firefighting went from the forest guard to the firefighting brigade under the PASOK administration in 1998.

Standard practice in fighting forest fires is based on the science of forestry, according to Karadonta. “Today, in Greece, the fleet of fire trucks are lined up on main roads and they are waiting for the fire to come to them. Since the fire has not been treated in its infancy, it has acquired such great dynamics in terms of great heat, load, power and intensity, that it can no longer be tamed.”

She stated, “Removing forest firefighting from the Forest Guard was a decision that was hurried, casual, without study and without national goals.” The action resulted in four devastating blazes: 1998, 2000, 2007 and 2021. In 2007 the human victims totaled 85, according to Karadonta.

Greece’s Firefighting Brigade belongs to the Ministry of Public Order and Citizen Protection, with local jurisdiction. Its mission is to protect and secure the life and property of citizens and the state, by suppressing fires. This includes natural disasters. The brigade provides for the rescue of persons and material goods.

The fire brigade has the responsibility and operational planning of the suppression of all kinds of fires and the provision of all possible assistance for the rescue of persons and material goods, which are threatened by them.

“Operational planning of repression” means the organization, management and coordination of all involved firefighting and rescue forces, equipment and other means and includes actions, which ensure timely detection, notification and intervention, in order to achieve immediate and effective management of fires and the risks they create.

The firefighting brigade deals with the consequences of natural, technological and other disasters, such as earthquakes, and floods, as well as chemical, biological, nuclear threats, by rescuing people and protecting material goods. The brigade does the same in cases of accidents in the air, on the rails, and in traffic.

The Museum of the Firefighting Brigade, which was founded in 1992, started its operation in Pallini, Attica in May of 2007.

Since the 1930s, the Fire Service has used more than 3,500 vehicles. Today it owns 1,500 fire engines and fire tenders, 800 auxiliary and 200 special vehicles, 44 firefighting aircraft, 20 helicopters (five of these are owned and 15 are leased) as well as 10 firefighting vessels.

Fire pump truck
Pumping trucks are one of the vital tools used by the Greek Firefighting Brigade while fighting fires in Greece. Credit:  macrolepis Creative Commons Attribution 3

“We found that yes we need more air means and specifically, provided by the Civil Protection program,” said Mitsotakis following his speech in Parliament. “We will invest in new aircraft. We will move quickly to acquire and rent them.”

Currently the service employs more than 8,000 individuals. The efforts of the Fire Service are backed up by volunteers as well as the Greek Army.

Volunteer Firefighters Officially Recognized in 1991

In 1991, a new Voluntary Corps was formed for volunteer firefighters. Today the volunteers are 15 percent of its manpower. Volunteers act as a support force. They are required to be officially recognized and trained by the Greek state. The legal and regulatory framework for volunteers in the Hellenic Fire Service and the Hellenic Coast Guard was updated with Law 4029 in 2011.

The mission of the volunteer firefighter is the safety and protection of the life and property of the citizens and the state, of the natural environment and especially of the forest of the country, from the dangers of fires, natural disasters and other disasters. The above mission is exercised within the responsibilities of the Fire Brigade.

Volunteer firefighters are now governed by a law that upgrades and promotes the institution of volunteer firefighters. The law’s articles specifically contain provisions regarding the mission and duties of the volunteer firefighters, their promotion as well as the provision of moral and material rewards.

Volunteers are required to complete a minimum of 120 hours of both theoretical and practical training to fight fires in Greece. They are certified following the completion of the training. They have insurance coverage and civil liabilities against third parties.

Training for volunteer and full time professional firefighters takes place at the Firefighting Academy, known in Greek as the Pyrosvestiki Akademia.  The training facility is located in Kato Kifissia with an annex at Villia Attica. The first “Firefighting School” was established in 1936 at Sarri Street. It was an outpost of the Fire Station Number One in Athens. The Academy was established in 1968.

New techniques, modern communication systems, a massive amount of equipment, an improved training process, the methodical planning of staff, but most importantly, the professionalism and responsibility of the firefighters allowed the Fire Brigade to respond effectively in the role of fire safety.

2021 Proves Extreme Challenge for Firefighting Brigade

The competence and efficiency of the Greek Firefighting Brigade is being called into question now, however. Following the recent daily fires in Greece, with fire fronts in double digits blazing for days, there will be much to assess on what succeeded and what did not succeed within the fire brigade.

In the fires of Evia, Varibobi and Villia equipment, coordination and surveillance methods are already being criticized. The current government’s greatest concern was that there would be no loss of human life, a resolution adopted from the tragedy of the fire in Mati in 2018 when 103 people lost their lives.

The government has been accused of not enlisting air surveillance early on with the use of drones, losing precious hours that could have stopped or contained fires across Greece.

Beyond aerial surveillance, response time has also come into question. Craft are supposed to be in the air within 20 minutes of notification. Instead it took 45 minutes for craft to launch and be airborne for helicopters and planes leaving the airfield at Tatoi.

After 48 hours, the fire in Varybobi had been contained, only to rekindle overnight and set off more days of fire spreading through communities north of Athens.

A lack of communication coordination had a near miss. In Villia, all aircraft were instructed to evacuate, so that the Russian super-transport Ilyushin could operate in the area. But apparently the directive did not reach everyone. A helicopter pilot reported he had come within 200 meters of the Ilyushin and would file a report because of the danger of not having been reached with the communication.

Another issue was debris on the forest floors. According to the retired lieutenant general of the Fire Brigade A. Gourbatsi, the Civil Protection plan was to clear the forests of fallen trees, broken branches and other natural debris by April 30. The deadline was extended to July 17 because of the additional damage caused by the winter storm Medea.

Canadian Firefighting Expert Offers Advice

Andrew Tzembelicos penned an opinion piece for Greek Reporter in 2018 based on his expertise in analyzing and preparing a government report for the British Columbia fires in 2017.  “Whether they are caused by weather-related events or human action, evidence shows that the spread of wildfires can indeed be minimized, if the correct actions are taken in time.

“Vital steps that can be undertaken in this area include assessing current disaster management practices and capacity; identifying where critical gaps are in ensuring communities and individuals are better prepared for disaster; and making the necessary investments in infrastructure.”

According to Tzembelicos, “It’s easy to think governments are solely responsible. However, preparing for and limiting the spread of wildfires very much involves landowners as well. Dead brush lying atop the ground served as kindling, or fuel, for wildfires — helping them accelerate quickly.”

Tzembelicos stated, “Findings showed that landowners who kept their properties clear of such ‘fuel’ greatly improved their odds of stopping wildfires from reaching their doors. Here in Greece, this would involve keeping properties free of debris and all other combustible materials which could act as accelerants.”

He also stated that developing closer working relationships between governments, communities and landowners by tapping into the on-the-ground knowledge of those who know the geography best, to plan together for disasters.

When disaster does strike, ensuring that emergency services are fully functioning and effectively communicating with one another and citizens is critical — particularly in the era of social media, when misinformation can spread quickly.

Coupled with consistent investment that is proactive, rather than simply being a response to deadly events — where the bulk of funds understandably tends to be spent in disaster management — there is hope for mitigating the effects of future deadly fires on Greece.

 

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