There was a 22.8 pct increase in the number of forest fires that broke out in 2016 compared with the previous year and they had a more devastating effect, with the area of burnt land rising by 124.5 pct. There was also a sharp rise in the number of confirmed cases of arson discovered by investigators, making intentional arson the top causal factor for wildfires in the year.
The above figures were presented on Saturday at the Fire Brigade Operations Centre in the Athens suburb of Chalandri, during the annual memorial event for fire fighters fallen in the line of duty held each year on November 12. Three firefighters lost their lives while battling fires in 2016, adding to the number killed in the line of duty.
The event was attended by Citizen Protection Minister Nikos Toskas.
Based on the figures presented at the event, a total of 7,983 fires were reported from the start of the year until the end of October, while the area of land burnt reached 36,586.9 hectares. There were 6,499 fires during the same months in 2015, burning a total area of 16,296.1 hectares.
The increase was highest during the hottest months between June and August, where there was a 27.6 pct increase in the number of fires and a 91.4 pct increase in the area of land burnt. The poor performance was attributed to extreme weather conditions lasting an unusually long time, including the lack of rain and the rare phenomenon of “dry storms” marked by strong winds and lightning with no rain, such as those that burnt Thassos in September.
Among the figures highlighted was the unusually high number of days with a high fire-risk rating in the summer of 2016, based on the charts drawn up by the General Secretariat for Civil Protection. There were 52 days given a fire-risk rating of 3 (high) and 20 days given a fire-risk rating of 4 (very high), or 80 in a period of 92 days. The 2015 summer season, by contrast, had only 59 high fire risk days. There are a total of five fire-risk ratings in Greece, ranging from 1 (very low) to 5 (state of alarm).
Authorities have also drawn up charges against 219 people for starting fires, 197 accidentally and 22 intentionally. A total of 161 people were arrested on the spot, of which 143 for starting fires through negligence and 18 intentionally, an increase of 60 pct compared with 2015.
Fire brigade investigators have also looked into 5,533 cases, of which 1,468 concerned wildfires and 4,065 burnt farming land. Based on their findings, the leading cause of these fires with 47.94 pct was intentional arson, followed by arson through negligence (32.65), undiscovered causes (13.45 pct), chance (3.18 pct) and natural causes (2.78 pct).
Noting the year’s poor results, Toskas expressed concern and spoke of a need to change planning for dealing with wildfires in light of the anticipated changes to weather patterns.
“We have to see how things evolve. We have different summers, different winters, different climate conditions, with very strong winds, storms and unprecedented weather phenomena that force us to change our way of thinking, our way of planning and our way of operating,” he said.
Civil Protection Secretary General Yiannis Kapakis, on his part, denied that the problem was with the fire-fighting service and its mechanisms, which he said had performed well “given the circumstances and taking all the parameters into account”.
Fire Brigade Chief Lieut. Gen. Vasilios Kapelios also expressed concern over the year’s performance and said it had been clear from the start of the fire season that the fire brigade would be up against difficult conditions. He highlighted the fire on Thassos, which he said had burnt the island on a day given a fire risk rating of 2.