Wildfire season planning was defective

Delays, even in-service politics, hampered response to unprecedented fires, some officials admit

Wildfire season planning was defective

A lack of timely planning, the retirement of experienced officers and failure to implement crucial provisions of a three-year-old law, contributed, along with the adverse climatic conditions, to significant losses of forested land, estimated at over 40,000 hectares, some officials acknowledge privately.

But Climate Crisis and Civil Protection Minister Vassilis Kikilias and Fire Service chief Giorgos Pournaras were not exactly forthcoming about the non-climate causes during a press conference on Friday. They avoided dwelling on operational mistakes and, when asked, said that “now is not the time for a reckoning.” They said the Fire Service did its best to limit the disaster, for which the climate crisis is mostly responsible. “It was the first time we had five days of extreme fire risk,” the highest category, Kikilias said.

A government official with extensive knowledge of civil protection issues told Kathimerini that, in the latest promotion round of Fire Service officials, 11 experienced officers were retired. This had to do with “internal issues” in the service related with competition for the highest offices. The remaining senior officers, in contrast to what was happening in previous years, tend not to go to the field but coordinate the firefighting efforts from the service’s operations center.

The same source said that provisions in a February 2020 law that created the National Crisis Management System, notably 13 regional civil protection operations centers, one for each of Greece’s regions, had not been implemented.

A senior Fire Service officer, who did not take part in firefighting operations, said that the prolonged electoral campaign – Greece held two national elections, on May 21 and June 25 – also affected the Fire Service’s preparations to face the wildfire season. He added that unseasonably high rains in June turned forest areas cleared in spring full of undergrowth in July.

Yet another, now retired, Fire Service officer said that the Civil Protection Ministry sent a circular to regions and municipalities on April 18 asking them to draw up evacuation plans. Few had updated plans, if they had any.

In the case of the destruction of an ammunition depot, some blamed the shifting, strong winds, but others noted that growth around the depot had not been cleared to provide a safety zone.

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