Reports in the media and from fire management colleagues indicate that the recent horrific bushfires in Greece have parallels in Australia and were predictable.
It is estimated that nearly 70 lives have been lost and close to 200,000 hectares of agricultural land, national parks and mountain forests have been incinerated. The loss of olive groves is economically disastrous. Similarly the mountain forests are mostly coniferous, and unlike eucalypt forests, are destroyed by high intensity fire. Serious soil erosion and flooding can be expected in the coming winters.
Like southern Australia, Greece has a Mediterranean climate with cool, rainy winters and hot dry summers – ideal conditions for bushfires. Traditionally, however, it has not had disastrous all-consuming wildfires even in previous periods of below average rainfall. What is going on? It appears that the answer lies not in “global warming” as the usual people are inevitably saying, but in land use changes, mismanagement and inappropriate policy. Three things stand out:
1. Loss of land to traditional rural people. Over the last 20 years of so there has been a splurge of buying-up of small rural properties by wealthy people from European countries. A luxury holiday villa is built, and the new owners retire there, or pop in now and again to enjoy the warmth and beauty of the Greek mountains. However, just as when wealthy people from Perth buy their little vineyard in the karri forest, or move to a property on the edge of the bush in the hills, the first thing they do is try to change traditional land use practices, especially burning, and to introduce a “new environmental awareness”.
Mild burning in spring and autumn has been a practice of villagers and small land owners for centuries in Greece for all the usual reasons – including producing fresh grass for grazing, keeping the woods healthy and maintaining a low fire hazard. Increasingly burning has declined as the former land owners move to larger towns, and the new owners fail to do the job.
2. Transfer of bushfire responsibilities from land managers to emergency services. A few years ago the Greek government decided to take fire management responsibilities away from their Forestry Service and give them to the fire brigades. Almost immediately, routine burning programs in forest areas ceased. The bushfire service was confident it could tackle any fire, but this view was based on their experience with fires which occurred in forests which had been prescribed burnt for generations.
Once burning stopped, fuels began to accumulate, and when this fuel became dry in the current drought period, the resulting fires were unstoppable. As is so often the case world-wide, fire services tend to have a “suppression mentality” and do not sufficiently involve themselves in the essential work of bushfire preparedness and damage mitigation. Greek foresters could see it all coming, but did not have the political support to get anyone to face up to the coming crisis.
3. Reliance on technology. Greek authorities have been seduced into investing huge sums of money into aerial fire fighting technology. This was sold to them as the answer to the maiden’s prayer. At the same time, traditional ground-based systems, including access for fire fighters and old-fashioned pre-suppression work, were allowed to run down. The result: when there were many simultaneous fires, the new system was simply overwhelmed. There were not enough water bombers to tackle a large number of small fires, and then when the small fires rapidly became large and intense, the water bombers were ineffective.
Australian bushfire specialists listen to all this with a rueful expression on their faces, or roll their eyes with despair.
Analysis of the massive bushfires in Victoria, ACT and NSW in recent years indicate exactly the same patterns have emerged in Australia, with almost exactly the same result.
We have been lucky that only a small number of lives have been lost. But this may not be the case in the next bad fire season. If Australian governments continue to go down the line of replacing land managers with emergency services, investing in massive aerial technology instead of permanent staff and preparedness programs on the ground, and allowing bushfire policies to be dictated by people from the inner suburbs of the big cities who have no practical experience, the bushfire situation will only get worse here, as it has in Greece.
Roger Underwood is a former General Manager of CALM in Western Australia, a regional and district manager, a research manager and bushfire specialist. Roger currently directs a consultancy practice with a focus on bushfire management. He lives in Perth, Western Australia.