C. Synolakis: Mistakes and oversights
It may be too early to analyze the events that resulted in us mourning the deaths of at least 74 people in the eastern Attica wildfires, but it is essential if we are to reduce the risks of such a catastrophe happening again.
Monday’s fires raged out of control, raising the question of whether the initial response was inadequate. The response time to any fire, whether in a city or a forest, is critical. As we stressed in an older study conducted with Georgios Karagiannis at the Technical University of Crete, understanding the situation, gauging the resources required and assessing the mobilization time are the biggest challenges in any disaster response.
We also noted that delays in making crucial decisions are a common phenomenon. In this case, the announcement of a wildfire in a well-known high-risk area should have sounded the alarm for the instant deployment of more firefighting resources before the fire spread.
The outcome of any firefighting effort is determined by the initial response. French firefighters like to say that you can put out a fire with a glass of water in the first minute, a bucket in the second and an entire water tank in the third. After that it’s a matter of luck. In other words, the civil protection authorities need to predict the course of a fire and deploy the necessary resources on the basis of this assessment. If they wait for the wind to shift direction or for the fire to spin out of control, it’s already too late.
The accelerated response that is needed in terms of resource deployment in such cases is also necessary when it comes to the evacuation of areas lying in harm’s way. The fire should not be allowed to reach people’s yards before they are ordered to abandon their homes. Authorities need to have evacuation plans that factor in available resources and traffic flow on the national and secondary road network.
The media pointed to an absence of coordination and planning that resulted in a delay of more than an hour before the first firetrucks arrived in Kineta, western Attica. In the case of eastern Attica, the footage shows us that the victims tried to run to safety without knowing which way to go. It is likely that over the next few days we will learn of their frantic efforts to communicate with rescuers and find a path to safety before they died.
The response to a wildfire needs to be comprehensive, not limited to the firefighting effort. Right now in Greece, the civil protection authorities are focused on this latter aspect only, paying less attention to the protection of the population.
Similar incidents in Greece and abroad have shown clearly that evacuations, whether in a city or the countryside, need to be carried out before the flames approach inhabited areas.
Mobilizing volunteer firefighters and Red Cross medics in a timely manner is equally important.
Greece has only a handful of areas that have carried out civil protection drills. It has no maps of its high-risk areas and possible escape routes, nor any kind of campaign for educating the public on the risks they face in their place of residence.
Fire growth simulation modeling systems like the US Forest Service’s FARSITE, used for precise operational and tactical planning, are intended to be used to improve response times and coordination, not just for the pleasure of researchers.
We tested the FARSITE system on a trial basis in 2014 when Greece hosted an exercise in wildfire management so as to improve coordination, decision making and the tactical deployment of water-dropping aircraft. As we saw from yesterday’s events, though, neither the Civil Protection Agency’s command center nor the municipal authorities in the area had knowledge of the possibilities offered by modern technology for planning the evacuation of densely populated woodland areas. There would have been fewer victims if a few simulations had been carried out in the area, because the authorities would have had a clearer picture of the challenges of an evacuation and would possibly have informed residents as well.
Costas Synolakis is a professor of natural hazards at the Technical University of Crete’s School of Environmental Engineering, and a regular member of the Athens Academy.