By Dr. George Boustras*
The catastrophic fire in Rhodes, a typical and unfortunate example of what is internationally referred to as a mega-fire - a fire that is extremely destructive to the local environment - was not the first of its kind in our region, yet it aroused international interest. It burned 15% of the total area of Rhodes, lasted for more than a week and was what caused several thousand tourists and residents of Rhodes to be evacuated, even though the image of ecological destruction was mitigated by the entirely successful evacuation and repatriation operation of thousands of people.
The month of July began with the announcement that the hottest day in human history was recorded and ended with the disclosure that - overall - it was the hottest July for as long as there are official records. This year abundant rainfall was recorded across Cyprus until the early summer followed by prolonged drought and high temperatures immediately after. An ideal mix for the start and rapid spread of large fires.
Traditionally, prevention involves clearing forest roads of potential fuel and opening new ones. With the introduction of new - ground and airborne - early warning devices, prevention is being strengthened. Suppression involves the engagement of firefighters, firefighting vehicles, aircraft, etc. But the problem is, unfortunately, becoming more and more intense.
We have reached a turning point. We, therefore, have to acknowledge that the assumptions on which the European civil protection model has been built up to now must be updated because we are constantly lagging behind events. In terms of infrastructure, it is necessary to continue to strengthen the human resources, infrastructure and machinery, to strengthen the services and to modernize them where necessary. At the political level, it is important to put the issue high on the agenda, as it affects many aspects of everyday life. A disaster has medium as well as long-term effects on the economy, the environment, public health, and tourism and can also develop into a crisis at any time.
We also have to admit that cities and forests are getting very close to one another, that the ability to operate and "clear" inaccessible forest areas is difficult, that there will be more arson, that energy transmission networks will experience failures, and that if we do not detect the fire in the first few minutes it will - probably - develop into a major incident, and that climate conditions will become even more uncertain in future.
In view of the above and taking into account that we are dealing with a long-term problem, we now need to design and adopt a national education plan for the effects of the climate crisis. There are scenarios that predict a gradual desertification of our region and an increase of up to 50% in the number, the intensity and the area affected by fires by 2050. In other words, we will have to learn to live with fires. This means working from school, at older ages, with specific groups of the population and especially with communities living near forests. At the same time, the latter should be combined with stricter penalties for arson and faster justice. It is well known, that the existence of crops and use of the area around the forest dramatically reduces the chances of ignition and acts as a natural barrier to the spread of a fire, so we need to incentivize people to stay and work there.
We should also test new strategies to reduce fuelwood in forests. In fact, we should use old techniques in new strategies. The controlled burning of low vegetation weeks before the start of the fire season is a strategy that has been used in the Iberian Peninsula and in Western Europe in recent years, on a pilot basis.
In addition, we increasingly see fires in concrete pits and recycling sites with uncertain consequences for public health and justifiable annoyance for local communities. We should certainly move towards tightening up the framework for the licensing and operation of such sites so that local communities do not have to suffer the consequences. We should reflect on the adoption of a strategy to reduce the amount of rubbish we produce and we should also reduce the number of such sites.
A beginning has been made with the regulation of volunteerism and groups that are working and developing. The State through education (as mentioned above) should encourage more of us to get involved in prevention and provide training and equipment so that there are more groups that can take action, always in coordination with the relevant authorities.
Finally, it should be noted that regional cooperation is constantly developing. Within the framework of trilateral and multilateral cooperation schemes, agreements are being signed and implemented. President Christodoulides visited Jordan this week and forest firefighting was on the agenda.
The European Commission and the Union for the Mediterranean are working intensively to have more active cooperation in the Mediterranean area. In this effort, Cyprus has a key role to play with its pivotal position by drawing lessons from the experiences of our regional and European allies and by implementing them as well as offering its own considerable experience in the field to other countries.
*Dr. George Boustras is a Professor of Risk Assessment at the European University of Cyprus and a Special Advisor to the President of the Republic of Cyprus on Crisis Management and Civil Protection