By Andrew Tzembelicos
Last year, I was closely involved in writing a report for the Government of British Columbia following the devastating 2017 wildfire season in Canada’s westernmost province.
The deadly wildfires in Mati and Kinetta last summer, and the multiple fires raging now in Greece, present a new opportunity to revisit what might be done to mitigate the impact of wildfires on people and communities across the nation.
Whether they are caused by weather-related events or human action, evidence shows that the spread of wildfires can indeed be minimized, if the correct actions are taken in time.
Vital steps that can be undertaken in this area include assessing current disaster management practices and capacity; identifying where critical gaps are in ensuring communities and individuals are better prepared for disaster; and making the necessary investments in infrastructure.
This could include, for example, expanding and/or modernizing Greece’s stable of amphibious airtankers, or “water bombers.”
It’s easy to think governments are solely responsible. However, preparing for and limiting the spread of wildfires very much involves landowners as well. In doing the research for last year’s British Columbia report, we learned that dead brush lying atop the ground served as kindling, or fuel, for wildfires — helping them accelerate quickly.
Findings showed that landowners who kept their properties clear of such “fuel” greatly improved their odds of stopping wildfires from reaching their doors. Here in Greece, this would involve keeping properties free of debris and all other combustible materials which could act as accelerants.
Were it not for this smart landscaping, one British Columbia community’s new multi-million dollar wildfire service building itself would have been completely destroyed, had officials not insisted on replacing freshly-planted vegetation with stones before the building’s opening.
Another vital lesson learned from the brutal BC wildfires, which could also be applied to communities in Greece at very low cost, is the value of partnerships and participation using the power of local knowledge.
This calls for developing closer working relationships between governments, communities and landowners — tapping into the on-the-ground knowledge of those who know the geography best, to plan together for disasters.
When disaster does strike, ensuring that emergency services are fully functioning and effectively communicating with one another and citizens is critical — particularly in the era of social media, when misinformation can spread quickly.
Working with affected citizens following disaster is also a must. Helping them quickly access assistance funds and services, or connecting them to critical health and psychological resources, is all part of the equation.
As we learned in British Columbia, and as detailed in our report called “Addressing the New Normal: 21st Century Disaster Management in British Columbia,” being better prepared for emergencies requires “leveraging partnerships and participation; harnessing knowledge and tools; and improving communication and awareness before, during and after disaster.”
Coupled with consistent investment that is proactive, rather than simply being a response to deadly events — where the bulk of funds understandably tends to be spent in disaster management — there is hope for mitigating the effects of future deadly wildfires on Greece.
Like other governments around the world which must confront the impact of out-of-control wildfires, Greece’s new national government has a prime opportunity to take bold, much-needed action in this critical area.
Andrew Tzembelicos is a Greek-Canadian writer, editor and communications consultant currently based in Athens.