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Summer is Coming—To Risk Life or to Risk Property in a Wildfire?

Lessons From the Greek Experience with Early Evacuation

2021 Greek wildfires from space.  ©NASA Wikimedia Public Domain
2021 Greek wildfires from space. ©NASA Wikimedia Public Domain

“No one warned us. No one.”

“No sirens. No police. Nothing.”

Five summers ago, Mina Tsolaki was in the densely packed, Greek beach village of Mati as it was ravaged by fire. She felt abandoned by the authorities who she thinks should have more quickly alerted the residents of the impending disaster and helped them evacuate as quickly as possible.

She still cannot quite believe she managed to escape the biblical carnage that engulfed the resort town on the east coast of the Attica region. The blaze killed over​​ 100 people and caused a further 150 to suffer severe burns, while destroying more than 1,500 homes and laying waste to thousands of acres of land in a tragedy that has been described as the most destructive forest fire in over a century in Europe and second only to the Black Saturday Fires in Australia worldwide. In the space of only two hours, the once-thriving resort full of hotels, restaurants, and holiday homes was devastated; such was the intensity of the 800-degree heat.

“To be honest, it’s a miracle I am alive today. I turned around and everything was on fire,” Tsolaki said in ​a ​documentary film, “Mati​:​​​ Trapped in Fire.”

Tsolaki escaped by racing through smoke-filled alleys to the Petalioi Gulf shore and wading into its waters. But even here was not safe, as molten ash rained down from the burning buildings in the town. Many residents drowned as they waited up to seven hours to be rescued, while others were killed in their cars as they tried to escape by road. In the aftermath, the beautiful green town was burnt to ash—buildings, trees, and vehicles all turned white.

Aftermath of Mati Fire (orange colored area delineates burnt area).  ©Copernicus/European Space Agency CC-BY SA 3.0
Aftermath of Mati Fire (orange colored area delineates burnt area). ©Copernicus/European Space Agency CC-BY SA 3.0

How could something almost medieval in its destructive intensity be allowed to occur in the 21st century in a part of the world that has the technology to predict and plan for such occasions?

Unlike most other natural disasters—such as randomly occurring earthquakes and tsunamis—forest fires are a regular feature of the Greek summer. In 2018, the fire season, which runs from the start of May until the end of October, had begun uneventfully, with above-average rainfall and no heat waves or strong winds. But on July 23, the day of the Mati fire, the fire risk index in Attica was set at “very high.”

Coupled with this, Mati, like most Greek towns, is set within an area of Wildland Urban Interface (WUI), where woodland is mixed with human structures. This creates a very attractive place to live but is also a fire hazard with plentiful fuel to burn. This topography, coupled with the low humidity and high temperature of over 102℉ (39℃) were ideal conditions for a fire fanned by a strong westerly wind that had been blowing for over ten hours.

Beautiful Mati, in 2006.  ©Stephan Schalla/Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0
Beautiful Mati, in 2006. ©Stephan Schalla/Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0

Despite knowing the potential risks, the town and its people were still tragically caught off guard. A fire officer, speaking anonymously to the “Mati: Trapped in Fire” cameras, claims rules were broken: The fire truck that was supposed to remain permanently in Mati was deployed fighting a fire elsewhere, there was no evacuation plan, and illegal buildings blocked residents’ swift escape to the shore.

There was a significant change to wildfire safety policy in Greece after 2018, with widespread use of early evacuation deemed the most appropriate method of keeping people safe during a forest fire.

The fire truck that was supposed to remain permanently in Mati was deployed fighting a fire elsewhere and illegal buildings blocked swift escape to the shore.

In Greece, this is an official directive, but it is non-mandatory. In contrast, in most Australian states, evacuation is mandatory; however, in reality, it is not imposed due to the practical difficulties and risk to the lives of emergency workers forcibly removing people from their own homes in a perilous situation.

The new blanket approach in Greece became evident in the exceptional fire season of 2021, when mass evacuations were carried out for almost every forest fire. From the beginning of the year until October, almost 9,000 fires ravaged the country, peaking in an unprecedented, hot August, when a half-million acres of land were destroyed, displacing thousands of people from their homes and into temporary accommodations. One of the worst affected areas was the island of Evia, where 2,000 people were evacuated by ferry to the mainland.

Is Mass Evacuation Best?

While this early evacuation stopped a potential catastrophe in human cost, disaster specialists have pondered if this really is the best approach.

This is the focus of recent research by Ioannis Zikelogou, “Is early evacuation the best and only strategy to protect and mitigate the effects of forest fires in WUI areas? A qualitative research on the residents’ response during the 2021 forest fires in NE Attica, Greece.” The researcher and his colleagues investigated residents’ behavior during a wildfire in August 2021, which broke out in Varympompi in North East Attica, twenty-five miles from Mati. While this fire was equally intense, no one lost their lives. The early evacuation of residents was successful, in part, due to effective communication.

Perhaps no one really knows how they would react in a fiery situation until it happens. However, in his work examining how people behave in this scenario, “Should We Leave Now?” Australian academic Jim McLennan discovered residents were likely to delay evacuation if the warnings about the impending fire did not give them enough information about the risks.

Looking at the behaviors of people caught up in wildfires in the United States and Australia, McLennan, of the School of Psychology and Public Health, La Trobe University, Bundoora, Australia, found people were more likely to assess the potential risk of the fire before making the decision whether to stay or go. Somewhat surprisingly, some would return to their property to protect it even if they were safe elsewhere when they found out about the fire.

In 2021, the Greek Civil Protection Agency sent out sixty-six text messages in English and in Greek the moment the local mayor activated the evacuation plan.

In 2021, the Greek Civil Protection Agency was able to send out sixty-six text messages in English and in Greek across the fire season the moment the local mayor activated the evacuation plan. The messages urged the receiver to evacuate as soon as possible and move to a safer area, thus supplying them the information they needed to save their own lives. Zikelogou writes: “The relatively new policy of early evacuation seeks to minimize the possibility of human loss due to forest fires, and fortunately, during the 2021 fire season, this goal was achieved.”

While saving lives might be considered the paramount concern for all involved, it is not as straightforward as that. Despite the policy’s successful implementation, Zikelogou uncovered strong opposition from residents and from local civil protection officials. They claimed that the universal implementation of early evacuation was not always the most effective tactic for every incident. Many argued that without homeowners on hand, there was a greater chance of damage to personal property and the infrastructure of the town. And those who ignored the early evacuation warning to try and save their homes reported witnessing small fires ripping through the unprotected buildings of their neighbors while they managed to preserve their own.

But protecting property in an inferno is a risky course of action. Katherine Haynes, research fellow at Risk Frontiers, Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, analyzed data from over a century’s worth of Australian bushfire fatalities. These predated the 2009 Black Saturday Fires, where 173 people died. This data clearly shows the dangers of being caught outside during a wildfire, statistically a fate more likely to befall men who have often died attempting to protect their property. Most women and child fatalities occurred while sheltering in the house or attempting to flee.

Role of Wildfire Prevention

But do these annually destructive events have to be considered as inevitable? According to a 2020 report, many governments around the world are far more effective at stopping fires developing in the first place than their Greek counterparts.

In a paper published on the US Department of Agriculture Forest Service site, “Obstacles to Improving Wildfire Risk Governance in Greece,” academic Palaiologos Palaiogou and colleagues wrote: “Successful application and experiences from North America and South Europe proved that investing more in prevention provides the means to cope with the upcoming challenges that emerge from climate change and, typical to Greece, the effects of land abandonment on fuel patterns.”

Greece spends an incredible sixteen times more on putting fires out than on fire prevention. The Greek Fire Service’s annual budget of $410 million dwarfs the $25 million given to the Greek Forest Service to manage the fire risk of woodlands.

As every schoolchild knows, a fire needs three elements. Two of them, heat and oxygen supply, cannot be controlled, but fuel can. Yet in Greece, fire-prone, low-level conifer forests and evergreen shrubland are largely left unmanaged and prone to fuel build-up. Furthermore, Greek wildfires are more likely to ignite due to human activity than natural causes. Only half of wildfires have a verified ignition cause, but of these, less than 10% start due to a natural cause—lightning—while the rest are ignited due to human behaviors, such as burning land for clearing unwanted vegetation, arson, or in the case of the Mati fire, someone burning brushwood in their backyard.

Training the Greek Forest Service personnel on successful fuel management projects that have been used elsewhere in Europe and the world would be the first step towards reducing further fire destruction. Additionally, implementing recent advancements in wildfire science that can reduce the speed at which wildfires spread would surely be a better approach than disrupting the lives, livelihoods, and homes of tens of thousands of Greek citizens.

Extreme heat events are likely to be a feature of humanity’s future and what can be learned from the Greek experience will be crucial for countless communities who live near the woods.


*Gordon Cairns is a freelance journalist and teacher of English and Forest Schools based in Scotland.


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