NEWS

Action plan needed to restore Mt Parnitha after blaze that will make Athens hotter in future

As the last fires were extinguished last week on Mt Parnitha, thoughts turned yet again to what can be done to avert a repetition. Kathimerini invited eight experts in their field to a round-table discussion on the situation. Greece has a very large and costly firefighting force but every year large areas of forest go up in smoke. Reforestation is the job of the Environment and Public Works Ministry, but it does not have the appropriate experience in reforestation. Just some of the ideas put forward at the discussion included drafting a forestry register, setting up a single forest protection agency and a separate Environment Ministry. Senior Kathimerini editorial and executive staff met with Niki Goulandris, chairperson of the board of the Goulandris Natural History Museum, Dimitris Karavellas, head of WWF Hellas, Matthaios Santamouris, associate professor of meteorology at Athens University, Nikos Haralambidis, director of Greenpeace, Ilias Apostolidis, forester and member of the board of the Geotechnical Chamber of Greece, Thanasis Bouzinekis, head of the Greek Foresters’ Association, Costas Karras, president of the Hellenic Society for the Protection of the Environment and Cultural Heritage, and Neni Nikolopoulou-Stamati, associate professor of medicine at Athens University (head of a postgraduate program on environment and health). «Unfortunately, the prime minister’s assurance that the (Mt Parnitha) forest will one day be a forest again is not enough,» said publisher Antonis Karkayiannis, «since many other areas destroyed by fire have subsequently been built on.» According to Niki Goulandris, Greece is unique in that its Forestry Service is not the authority that is charged with fighting forest fires. «The forestry services report to the regional authorities, which have no idea about this sort of thing,» she explained, suggesting that a forestry undersecretariat be set up. Thanasis Bouzinekis gave an example of what occurs in the bureaucratic machine when a forest fire breaks out. «In 1998 I was present at a forest fire at Tymphristo on the border between Evrytania and Fthiotida. The forest had been burning for two days. So the prefect called the head of the forestry service and told him to do something about it. The latter, who considered the forest his turf, got 15 bulldozers to plow a firebreak 100 meters wide through the forest, destroying all the trees in their wake. He rounded up all the woodcutters in Evrytania who came in with their chainsaws. A firefighter would never do that,» said Bouzinekis, who said enhanced cooperation was the only solution. Goulandris does not believe that making the forestry service responsible for fighting fires is the only solution. However, she suggested that in winter, firefighters – currently used in the event of accidents and to free people trapped in elevators – should work with forestry services to decide what should be done about the forests. «That way no firefighter can say that there are no firebreaks,» she said, calling for a single forest fire protection service with which all services would be obliged to cooperate. Definition of forest Karkayiannis pointed out that there was no widespread agreement as to what constituted forest in Greece. «For three-and-a-half years we have been waiting for the Council of State to decide whether a forest is land with 15 percent or 25 percent tree cover,» said Ilias Apostolidis. «There has been a dispute as to whether the forestry law, passed shortly before the new year of 2004, is unconstitutional. That law sets out the definition of what is forest.» «We’ve reached a point where we think it’s logical for courts to decide what is or isn’t a forest,» said Haralambidis. Costas Karras attributed the Council of State’s delay in reaching a decision to recent pressure exerted on it, relating to proposals to set up a Constitutional Court. So the problem appears to be that it is difficult to provide protection for something that is coveted in many quarters and yet remains undelineated. «There is a threefold issue that needs looking at,» said Dimitris Karavellas. «Prevention, containment and restoration. As far as prevention goes, Parnitha was one of the few areas in the country with a strong, effective forestry service. That is operational prevention. But the problem in Greece is often institutional. When the status of land is unclear, there is a motive for potential arsonists. I very much fear that forests will continue to burn. A forestry register and a clear delineation of forests will help remove motives for burning forestland. Buying more firefighting aircraft is not the solution,» he explained. Apparently, Greece has more than enough of these anyhow. «We have the largest and most expensive fleet of firefighting vehicles in Europe,» said Bouzinekis. «Not even the Americans have the means that we have, on a comparative scale,» he added. «The problem with firefighting in Greece is that one organization does the planning and another does the work. Firefighting plans are drafted by the forestry service and the fires are fought by people who have never seen these plans. No common sense is brought to bear,» he added. There was general agreement that now the fires are out, no hasty action should be taken, particularly by those who don’t know what they are doing. «The Parnitha forestry service director is in charge and no one has the right to tell him what to do,» insisted Bouzinekis. Athens climate Increased atmospheric pollution, particularly airborne particles, could be dealt with by reducing traffic in Athens,» said Neni Nikolopoulou-Stamati. Athens’s climate will be drastically affected, according to Matthaios Santamouris. «Athens had two cooling mechanisms, the sea breeze and the breeze from the north, which was cool as it had passed over the Aegean, then the forests of Mt Parnitha. When air is cooled it becomes heavier and descends, in this case over the northern and northeastern suburbs, lowering temperatures. Now that one of the mechanisms has been lost, when the air passes over Parnitha, it is no longer cooled but heated, a great deal in fact. Because at the moment on Parnitha there is just a blackened area with a high absorption rate that creates heat. «The difference in soil temperatures we recorded between the burnt area and the vegetated area is up to 35 degrees. So the air, instead of being cooled, is heated and rises up over the sea, blocking the sea air.» Something needs to be done to reduce the city’s thermal balance, such as ratifying the European Union directive on buildings, which create 60 percent of the heat emitted by the city. Athens was already environmentally damaged. Now after the destruction on Parnitha, it will be gasping for breath.