Forest fires and negligence


As we have all ascertained, climate destabilization has led to an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather conditions worldwide.

The global cost to insurance companies of damages from extreme weather conditions has soared from 10 billion dollars in the 1950s to more than $1,000 billion in the last decade. According to a recent Bank of Greece report, the cost of climate change in our country will have exceeded 700 billion euros cumulatively by the end of the century. The cost of forest fires is included.

We have already entered the period during which burning and activities that could lead to forest fires are prohibited in the countryside. This year’s as well as last year’s extreme weather have resulted in the accumulation of huge quantities of cut wood, branches and trees, which are known to constitute ideal fuel for impending fires.

The main causes of forest fires are arson (unintentionally or deliberately), lightning and power cables, which many invoke when they cannot trace the origin of the first spark. However, it is known that in residential areas the hazard resulting from powers cables is addressed by local residents, who cut the branches that are in contact with cables near their residence. Unfortunately, we do not know whether the same preventive measures are taken in settlements inside forests. 

What we do know, is that both the fire in Mati in East Attica in 2018 and the recent blaze in the Geraneia Mountains started with the burning of branches and other organic waste. The former resulted in 102 victims while the latter, fortunately without victims, led to a huge environmental disaster with more than 7,000 hectares of burnt forest. Both arsons started because of negligence, despite winds of over 6 or 7 Beaufort. The dire economic, social and environmental consequences have shocked the Greek nation.   

Our country, like any other country, cannot afford to lose more green and other ecosystems. In the past decades, we have sadly not only seen extensive forest fires but also the alpine altitude of the burning trees exceeding even 1 kilometer. The progress of climate change unfortunately reserves even more frequent and intense winds in eastern Greece. It also reserves more frequent extreme weather and greater instability, while also foretelling greater fuel production during the coldest season of the year. 

So, where we are heading? Whatever preventive measures may be taken may be cancelled by any “negligent” arsonist who may or may not be punished for their negligence. Causing a forest fire because of negligence is an asymmetric threat. A minimum of criminal activity – a spark, a lit cigarette or burning dry weeds – can cause damage of an enormous extent that may sometimes border on a national catastrophe, as was the case in Mati, in Parnitha or in the Geraneia Mountains recently.

It is true that when the arson of a forest area is deliberate (with intent), it carries heavy sentences. In contrast, causing a fire by negligence carries a prison sentence of between 10 days and five years under the penal code. This is so even if the fire burns thousands of acres, even if it causes dozens of deaths. In the latter case, negligent arson is linked to manslaughter, whose prison sentence cannot exceed five years either (misdemeanor), no matter how many deaths have been provoked. So, in this case (extensive negligent arson and multifold manslaughter), the sentence continues to be that of a misdemeanor and it cannot exceed the maximum sentence of five years (Article 94 Paragraph 2 of the penal code). And when there are mitigating circumstances, by law it can be reduced “to its minimum limit,” or a 10-day period (Art. 83 case D).

Such arrangements cannot properly capture the culpability of the person who causes a dramatic environmental disaster out of indifference and inexcusable recklessness, even if they were acting unintentionally, i.e. without admitting the criminal outcome of the fire. Whoever puts the forest in danger should consider the possibility that it may cause irreversible damage, the cost of which will be borne by future generations. Their negligence is not simple negligence, it is particularly heavy and reprehensible, and should be punished accordingly.

Our penal code acknowledges gradations of negligence. For example, when determining the sentence, the judge takes into account the degree of the perpetrator’s negligence (Art. 79). Similarly, German legislation acknowledges severe negligence (Leichtfertigkeit), as does the law of Anglo-Saxon countries (recklessness). Our penal code already recognizes the punishment of negligence to the degree of a felony (Art. 29, 42 Par. 3). Actually, the previous penal code provided that in the event of multiple manslaughter, imprisonment of up to 10 years could be imposed. Nevertheless, this provision strangely disappeared in the new penal code, without an explanation and despite the relevant remarks from the scientists.

It is, therefore, imperative that negligent arson be punished to the degree of a felony when the fire has spread to a large area and since the perpetrator has demonstrated severe negligence, namely inexcusable indifference to the outcome. It is also vital to restore the provision of the previous penal code for imprisonment of up to 10 years in the event of multiple manslaughter. For all these reasons, it is not only imperative that the criminal code for forest fires be reviewed but also that the state implement the possibility of a reward so that there will be a strong motive for the denunciation of any illegal burning during the firebreak season.

The signatories are sounding the alarm over the increasing hazard of forest fires, driven by our common perception that attacks on the environment have not only domestic but also global consequences over a multi-generational horizon.

Christos S. Zerefos is secretary-general of the Academy of Athens and Christos Mylonopoulos is a professor of criminal law at the University of Athens.