Greek Wildfire Recovery Could Take Decades

Hope Hamashige
for National Geographic News
October 3, 2007
It will take years for Greece to recover from this summer's record wildfire season—and it may not happen at all if officials don't take steps to protect burnt lands during the renewal process—warns the Greek chapter of the international conservation nonprofit WWF.

The group recently released an assessment detailing how years of poor forest management combined with high temperatures and dry weather and created this year's unprecedented tinderbox situation, which killed at least 67 people.

More than 670,000 acres (270,000 hectares) of farmland, homes, and protected forests were charred over the summer, the European Forest Fire Information System reports.

That's twice the amount of land that was scorched in the previous record year, 2000. (See a picture of the wildfires threatening the site of the ancient Olympics.)

"The amount of land burned is about 5 percent of the whole country," said Constantinos Liarikos, conservation manager with the WWF in Athens. "It was huge." (See a map of Greece's forests.)

WWF says that the Greek government, which has a reputation for lax protection practices, must follow through on promises to replant devastated areas and keep lands free of development and livestock—or risk losing the forests forever.

Decades of Recovery

Some swaths of Greek forest, like parts of the U.S. West, are fire-dependent and will regenerate quickly, Liarikos said.

Evergreen strawberry trees, along with mastic and other common shrubs, resprout following fire. These lowland plants may start regeneration within two to three years.

And short-statured Aleppo pines release their seeds when they are exposed to fire.

But much of the damaged land will need far longer to recover.

One unusual feature of the fires this year, Liarikos said, is that they reached unusually high elevations—up to 4,900 feet (1,500 meters).

Upland forests in Greece are not accustomed to fire and could take 50 years or longer to renew, Liarikos pointed out.

Gavriil Xanthopoulos, a forest-fire researcher at the Institute of Mediterranean Forest Ecosystems and Forest Products Technology in Athens, agreed.

"This is not typical Mediterranean forest, and it is not easy to regenerate," Xanthopoulos said.

Grecian firs, for example, are common in higher elevations but need a different tree species to thrive and provide shade before the firs will come back, he said.

It will likely be necessary to replant the firs, along with Austrian pines, at higher elevations because they are too slow-growing, he added.

One place this is critically important, according to Xanthopoulos, is Mount Parnis National Park near Athens, which lost two-thirds of its trees.

"This forest has been contributing greatly to the climate of Athens, smoothing high-temperature peaks, acting as a filter of pollution, and being a source of oxygen," he said.

It may be impossible to restore the acres of olive groves grown for agricultural purposes on the Peloponnese Peninsula, he added. Many groves contained trees that were more than a hundred years old.

The flames also hit seven Natura 2000 sites, burning 74,000 acres (30,000 hectares). This included the lands surrounding Lake Kaiafa, where most of the human fire fatalities lived.

Natura 2000 is a network of protected areas aimed at halting the loss of biodiversity in Europe.

The burned areas include habitats for several animal species, including the endangered golden jackal and red deer and several lizard and turtle species. WWF said it is too soon to know if the animal populations will suffer from the loss of habitat.

Call for Action

Environmentalists and academics warn that Greek forests face additional hazards unless the government acts quickly and decisively.

Without plants to anchor the soil, for instance, burn zones are ripe for heavy erosion, flooding, and landslides if heavy rains douse the areas in the next few years. This is particularly true in the higher elevation burn zones.

Xanthopoulos said it is critical that livestock is kept off the charred areas during the renewal process.

"If livestock is introduced in these sites, they can really destroy natural regeneration to the point of changing the vegetation type," Xanthopoulos said.

The best way to do this is to subsidize feed for shepherds, he added.

Precisely how Greek authorities plan to manage the deforested lands remains to be seen.

The government has announced plans to replant in the burn zones.

But environmental groups like WWF are skeptical.

Based on the fact that towns have sprung up amidst the ashes of forests burned in the past, Liarikos said, there is good reason for the pessimism. (Related: "Wildfire-Ravaged Forests Hurt by Post-Blaze Logging, Study Says" [January 5, 2006].)

"That is the usual rhetoric in the country, and it almost never happens," said Liarikos, adding that Greek law does not prevent development even in protected forests.

"Fire always forces land-use changes," he said. "After every fire, a certain part of burned areas are always developed."

Arson has even been used in the past in Greece to force land-use changes.

In an effort to prevent total destruction of these wild places, WWF Greece has formed a legal team of "environmental advocates" to monitor possible land encroachment cases.

"The future of these areas presents a major challenge for us all," said Demetres Karavellas, CEO of WWF Greece. "Negative land-use changes and ill-conceived rehabilitation could mean total destruction for these sites."

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