Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on September 4, 2018.

Timely Greek study recommends a shift from wildfire suppression to risk management



On July 23, a wildfire broke out in Mati, Greece, a tiny seaside town located about 15 miles east of Athens. In less than four hours, flames raced through the hilly village and killed 90 people, making the blaze Europe’s deadliest wildfire since 1900, according to the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, a Belgian organization that studies natural disasters.

The same day, a study conducted by Greek and American researchers was published in the International Journal of Wildland Fire that highlighted the factors contributing to the wildfire problem in Greece, as well as suggesting ways to mitigate it.

“These extreme fire events are occurring with increasing frequency owing to climate anomalies, fuel build-up, and rugged terrain around some urban development that hinders effective suppression activities,” the study says.

Despite geographical challenges leading to an inability to successfully suppress fires in Greece, the country still funds fire suppression efforts at a rate of 164 times more than it funds wildfire fuel management and ignition prevention programs, according to the study—not unlike what occurs in other parts of Europe, and the United States. Compounding these problems in Greece, though, is a history of complex, and sometimes illegal, land use. Until the 2000s, for example, loopholes in laws allowed landowners to reclassify forested areas that had burned as “non-forest lands,” removing the needed restrictions on building in those areas, the study says.

The study concludes that in large part the answer to these problems lies in better wildfire risk management in Greece, which entails shifting the focus from suppression to preventative measures, but that will require government changes. Prescribed burning, for example, is one of the most cost-effective measures—a necessary condition in a country gripped by economic crisis—but the practice is currently illegal in Greece, said study lead author Paleologos Paleologou, a Greek wildfire researcher and fellow with the U.S. Forest Service’s International Visitor Program.

A failure to properly manage the wildfire risk is what leads to catastrophes like the one that struck Greece in late July, Paleologou said. “This is what happens when a highly volatile and high load of vegetation on the wildland urban interface is combined with extreme weather [temperatures topped 95 degrees Fahrenheit and wind gusts exceeded 60 mph] and the total absence of the state,” he wrote in an email to NFPA Journal. “People were abandoned … They never got an evacuation order.” Paleologou said a number of lawsuits are being filed, which may result in the conviction of government officials, which happened after similarly destructive wildfires struck the nation in 2007.

Read the full study by Paleologou and other researchers.

Mexico City

Latin American NFPA representative wins engineering award

Antonio Macias, NFPA’s representative for Latin America and the Caribbean, has been awarded the 2017 Mexico National Engineering Award.

Macias, who is based in Mexico City, received the award during a ceremony in the country’s capital on July 4. Mexico celebrated its national Engineers’ Day on July 1.

In his speech, Macias acknowledged the institutions that gave him the knowledge to work toward advancing fire, life, and electrical safety throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, including the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the country’s highest-ranking university, where Macias worked as an engineering professor. He also pointed to the increasing efforts by NFPA and other organizations to enhance safety in these regions.

Learn more about NFPA’s involvement in Latin America and other regions outside of the United States online.

Northern Europe

Summertime wildfires in Europe burn as far north as the Arctic

From January through August, the number of acres of land burned by wildfires in Sweden was over 12 times the country’s annual average over the past 10 years. Fires in the country were reported burning as far north as the Arctic Circle. In the United Kingdom (U.K.), the number of acres torched by wildfires over the same time period was almost six times higher than the country’s 10-year average.

The statistics, from the European Commission, reflect the growing consensus of wildfire experts that, in a world being altered by climate change, wildfires can happen anywhere and anytime.

Comparison of the acres of land burned by wildfire in Sweden and UK from January to August both of which had their highest amount burned in a 10-year average

“Historically the U.K. has experienced periodic severe wildfire seasons, however more recently the number and severity of wildfires have increased,” Shaun Walton, a U.K. fire official, told Lucian Deaton of NFPA’s Wildfire Division for a blog Deaton wrote in August. “Many influencing factors have contributed to this, including hotter and dryer seasonal weather. Traditional wildfire seasons have changed, with the U.K. experiencing wildfires starting earlier and finishing later in the year.”

Read more on the “Fire Break” blog on NFPA Xchange.

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: RUETERS