Blistering Heat and Arsonists Set Southern Europe Ablaze

ROME, Italy, July 30, 2007 (ENS) - Wildfires blazing across much southern Europe have become the enemy for thousands of firefighters supported by water-dropping helicopters. Extreme heat has made this summer's forest fires particularly severe, with emergency officials as well as politicians blaming arsonists for sparking some of the worst ones.

The NATO-led peacekeeping Kosovo Force, KFOR, is working with its civilian counterparts to put out the wildfires burning across Kosovo.

Despite a heat wave that has gripped Kosovo for weeks, farmers are conforming to tradition and burning the leftover straw in their fields after the harvest, sparking spontaneous wildfires all over Kosovo.

KFOR helicopter drops water on Kosovo fires. (Photo courtesy NATO)
Civilian institutions have requested KFOR's support in firefighting operations, and KFOR has responded with helicopters and also with trained firefighting personnel on the ground.

When conditions allow, KFOR's helicopters operate from sunrise to sunset, seven days a week, NATO said, adding, "Because of existing landmines, it is extremely dangerous for pilots to drop tons of water from a low altitude; therefore, assistance is sometimes limited."

In the northwestern part of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, a new fire erupted Saturday near the mountainous Jasen National Park. Two helicopters from KFOR were sent to help extinguish the flames.

In the UN-run province of Serbia, three new fires are blazing northwest of Kosovo's capital Pristina.

Southern European countries are battling blazes and blistering temperatures that have soared above 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees F), torching wildfires in Greece and Italy.

Firefighters battled some 1,500 blazes within a 24 hour period in parts of central and southern Italy during the July 24 weekend. Three pilots were killed while operating fire-fighting aircraft.

Two Greek pilots died when their Canadair crashed while taking part in an operation to put out a major fire on the island of Evia. One Italian pilot was killed and another seriously injured in an accident during a fire-fighting operation in the area close to L'Aquila.

Large areas of central and southern Italy are still ablaze, although fire officials report crews are gaining control despite searing heat and high winds. One of the emergency areas is still the southern region of Puglia where dozens of new forest and bush fires have been reported.

More than 4,000 people were evacuated from camping sites, hotels and holiday resorts in and around the seaside towns of Peschici and Vieste on the Gargano peninsula where two people were found dead in their car on Tuesday. Two others died in blazes nearby.

The civil defense department said Italy is dealing with one of the worst fire emergencies in years and laid the blame on arsonists whom it said are "waging war" on the authorities.

Fire consumes forests near Abruzzo, Italy. July 24, 2007. (Photo courtesy Luigi)
Forestry Corps Chief Cesare Patrone agreed that nearly all of the blazes had been started deliberately, ANSA news agency reported.

"Most of the fires of the past few days have been of a criminal nature," the conservation group WWF said in a statement. "It is well known that fire almost always serves to get rid of trees and other natural obstacles to make way for new hotels, villas or pastures."

WWF estimates that in recent weeks the fires have destroyed more than 9,000 hectares of Italy's protected natural areas, a figure the group says will rise once it assesses the damages after the fires are extinguished.

As fire destroyed the forests of the Majella and Abruzzi parks, bears and wolves have fled the flames, the group said.

Temperatures across Greece have been as high as 45 Celsius (113 degrees F), sparking about 200 fires, with more than a dozen burning out of control.

Peloponnese and the island of Cephalonia in the Adriatic Sea off the peninsula's northwest coast are among the hardest hit areas.

In Achaia on the northern coast of the Peloponnese, the fire officials say they have evidence pointing to two suspects in area fires. A man, 26, and a woman, 77, are being charged with arson.

A major fire broke out Sunday afternoon in a residential area of Stamata, just north of Athens in the prefecture of Attica, and is threatening a number of homes.

In central Greece, on the north flank of Mount Parnassus, another fire started Sunday in an area of sparse fir forest under unexplained circumstances. Local media say the roadless area is not easily accessible to firefighting forces.

Greek Prime Minister Konstantinos Karamanlis Thursday appealed to the Kremlin for firefighting aircraft. Russian President Vladimir Putin said that "in light of the friendly relations between Russia and Greece additional aircraft from the Russian Emergencies Ministry will be sent to Greece as soon as possible."

Fires in Greece and the Balkans as seen from space (Photo courtesy ESA)
Earlier in the week, President Putin also agreed to send help to Serbia, where Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said the fires have created a crisis situation that is causing great damage as well as threatening the lives and health of Serbian citizens.

In the past 30 says, the European Commission's Monitoring and Information Centre has received a total of eight requests for assistance from Greece, Cyprus, Italy, Bulgaria and, most recently the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia - to help combat the forest fires raging across Southern Europe.

Assistance was made available through the Community Civil Protection Mechanism by various Member States, including Italy, France, Spain and Greece. But the firefighting resources are stretched thin, with all the southern EU member states and most neighboring countries combating major fires on their own territory.

The European Space Agency, ESA, says the major fires are visible from space. Satellites detect not only the smoke billowing from major conflagrations but also the burn scars left in their wake and even the fires themselves, which appear as "hotspots" when scanning the Earth's surface in infrared wavelengths.

For a decade, ESA satellites have been continuously surveying fires burning across the Earth's surface. Worldwide fire maps based on this data are now available to users online in near-real time through ESA's ATSR World Fire Atlas.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.