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The fires of Mount Hymettus near Athens Greece (1996-2017): history and fire behavior characteristics

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Mount Hymettus is a mountain lining the east side of Athens, the capital of Greece. Its proximity to the city, its flammable vegetation, and the variety of human activities (recreation, beekeeping, etc.) often result in problems with forest fires, which have reached a very high frequency in the last twenty years. These fires are of significant interest to firefighters, civil protection officers, foresters and the public because of their causes, their spread characteristics and associated safety risks, and their effects. In the present paper, a brief account of the forest fires on Mt Hymettus in the 1996-2017 period is presented. Emphasis is put on the observed fire behavior which can be of interest to modeling studies of topographic influence on fire spread, and, since two of these fires have led to fatalities, may be used as case study illustrating a combination of fire environment conditions that entails great risk to firefighters. It is concluded that special care is needed regarding fire prevention and firefighting regarding fire management on Mount Hymettus. Professional and volunteer firefighters need to receive training that highlights the increased risks that fires on this mountain present. Furthermore, as the number of visitors is very high, special attention must be devoted to them, regarding both fire prevention and risk avoidance.
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The fires of Mount Hymettus near Athens Greece (1996-2017): history and fire
behavior characteristics
Author(s: Xanthopoulos, Gavriil; Athanasiou, Miltiadis
Published by: Imprensa da Universidade de Coimbra
Persistent URL: URI:http://hdl.handle.net/10316.2/44590
DOI: DOI:https://doi.org/10.14195/978-989-26-16-506_73
Accessed : 19-Nov-2018 12:12:30
digitalis.uc.pt
pombalina.uc.pt
AdvAnces in
Forest Fire reseArch
2018
EDITED BY
DOMINGOS XAVIER VIEGAS
ADAI/CEIF, UNIVERSITY OF COIMBRA, PORTUGAL
Advances in Forest Fire Research 2018 - D. X. Viegas (Ed.)
Chapter 3 Fire Management
https://doi.org/10.14195/978-989-26-16-506_73
Advances in Forest Fire Research 2018 Page 661
The fires of Mount Hymettus near Athens Greece (1996-2017): history
and fire behavior characteristics
Gavriil Xanthopoulos1*; Miltiadis Athanasiou2
1Hellenic Agricultural Organization “Demeter”, Institute of Mediterranean Forest Ecosystems.
Terma Alkmanos, Ilisia, 11528, Athens, Greece, {gxnrtc@fria.gr*}
2 Wildfire Management Consulting and Training. 8 Thoma Paleologou st.,
Acharnes 13673, Athens, Greece, {info@m-athanasiou.gr}
Abstract
Mount Hymettus is a mountain lining the east side of Athens, the capital of Greece. Its proximity to the
city, its flammable vegetation, and the variety of human activities (recreation, beekeeping, etc.) often result
in problems with forest fires, which have reached a very high frequency in the last twenty years. These fires
are of significant interest to firefighters, civil protection officers, foresters and the public because of their
causes, their spread characteristics and associated safety risks, and their effects.
In the present paper, a brief account of the forest fires on Mt Hymettus in the 1996-2017 period is
presented. Emphasis is put on the observed fire behavior which can be of interest to modeling studies of
topographic influence on fire spread, and, since two of these fires have led to fatalities, may be used as case
study illustrating a combination of fire environment conditions that entails great risk to firefighters. It is
concluded that special care is needed regarding fire prevention and firefighting regarding fire management
on Mount Hymettus. Professional and volunteer firefighters need to receive training that highlights the
increased risks that fires on this mountain present. Furthermore, as the number of visitors is very high, special
attention must be devoted to them, regarding both fire prevention and risk avoidance.
Keywords: Forest fire, chimney effect, canyon, fire fatality, Mount Hymettus, Greece
Mount Hymettus is a mountain lining the east side of Athens, the capital of Greece. Its proximity
to the city, its flammable vegetation, and the variety of human activities (recreation, beekeeping, etc.)
often result in problems with forest fires, which have reached a very high frequency in the last twenty
years or so. These fires are of significant interest to firefighters, civil protection officers, foresters and
the public because of their causes, their spread characteristics and associated safety risks, and their
effects.
Among Attica mountains, Mt Hymettus has been described as a a remnant of the land that then
was” in the Socratic dialogue Timaeus and Critias where the phenomenon of the erosion is described
as “considerable accumulation of the soil coming down from the mountains, as in other places, but the
earth has fallen away all round and sunk out of sight. The consequence is, that in comparison of what
then was, there are remaining only the bones of the wasted body, as they may be called, as in the case
of small islands, all the richer and softer parts of the soil having fallen away, and the mere skeleton of
the land being left.”. Furthermore, it can be deduced that the vegetation types covering many areas
were mostly phrygana, since “mountains now only afford sustenance to bees”.
Since antiquity, Mount Hymettus has been revegetated and then denuded many times, sometimes
through fire but mostly through overgrazing and excessive vegetation cutting for fuelwood. At the
time of the construction of the all-marble Panathenian stadium at its foothills facing Athens, for the
first Modern Olympic Games in 1896, it was shown devoid of tall vegetation in all photos of that
period. At the end of the World War II, tree vegetation on the mountain had again been removed
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completely because it had been used for the needs of the people of Athens. The protection the mountain
received after that, and a series of reforestation efforts, led to the development of a patchy forest. This
forest however, has suffered many fires in the last three decades.
In the present paper, a brief account of the forest fires on Mt Hymettus in the 1996-2017 period is
presented. Emphasis is put on the observed fire behavior which can be of interest to modeling studies
of topographic influence on fire spread, and, since two of these fires have led to fatalities, may be used
as case study illustrating a combination of fire environment conditions that entails great risk to
firefighters.
Mount Hymettus runs in a NE to SW direction defining the eastern edge of the city of Athens. It
reaches a maximum elevation of 1026 m, has a maximum length of 20 km and width of 6 km, forming
a perimeter of 65 km with a total area of 81 sq. km. Its vegetation consists of Meditereranean pine
forest, Pinus halepensis and planted Pinus brutia, Mediterranean evergreen shrubs such as Quercus
coccifera, Pistacia lentiscus, Genista acanthoclada, etc., and phrygana such as Cistus creticus, Cistus
parviflorus, Sarcopoterium spinosum, etc. It is a Site of Community Importance (SCI) according to
92/43/EEC European Commission Habitats Directive (code GR3000006). As it belongs to the
European Union’s Natura 2000 network of sites, it enjoys a special environmental protection status.
Precipitation is relatively low, ranging around 400 mm per year. July and August, are usually
completely dry. The prevailing wind during the fire season, from June to early September, is from the
NE, blowing along the general direction of the mountain. This wind, known as “etisies” from the
ancient Greek times, blows in the summer in all the Aegean sea, mainly from June to September, and
usually runs for three to four consecutive days reaching 7 and sometimes 8 Beaufort scale force
(roughly 50-70 km/h) in a steady direction. It is also called “meltemi” wind.
On the west side of the mountain, which faces the city and where most fires occur, the slope is
perpendicular to the direction of the wind. Fire spread is in the direction of the resultant of the wind
and slope vectors. This means spread in a S to SW direction with a tendency to move upslope. Further
to that, and especially interesting regarding firefighter safety, is that the slopes of Mount Hymettus,
especially on its western side, are characterized by a series of steep canyons.
In the 1996 to 2017 period at least eleven significant fires occurred on Mount Hymettus (Figure 1).
They were quite large for the size of the mountain and parts of them often stopped at the fridge of the
city where there was no vegetation to burn. All of them required heavy aerial support for their
suppression. These larger fires are summarized in Table 1. Many other smaller fires that take place
every summer are suppressed quickly through initial ground attack and help from the air.
Table 1 - Some of the most important fires of the 1996-2017 period on Mount Hymettus
Wildfire
Description and Fire Behaviour
July 22,
1998
Wind driven through a dense and tall pine forest, explosive in a canyon at the east flank
close to its heel where four fatalities occurred. T=35οC, RH=25%, North wind of 30
km/h, gusting to 48 km/h.
August 4,
2003
Medium to low intensity surface fire in relatively sparse vegetation, that had burned in
1995, near the municipality of Argiroupoli
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July 9,
2005
Mostly surface fire that re-burned the same canyon where the four fatalities of July 22,
1998 took place. The fire moved explosively within the canyon but the intensity was
medium due to reduced biomass. T=31οC, RH=54%, WSW wind of 7 km/h
July 30,
2005
Wind driven, mostly surface fire of medium intensity due to relatively sparse fuel. It
was suppressed quickly through strong aerial attack.
July 16,
2007
Active wind driven crown fire spreading through a dense and tall pine forest, including
spotting. T=30οC, RH=35%, North wind of 30 km/h. Rate of spread at the head reached
2.4 km/h. It was controlled by strong aerial resources.
August
25, 2007
Wind driven, high intensity and fast-spreading, mostly surface fire. Started around
noon, fanned by a strong north wind. It started between the houses of the municipality
of Papagos-Cholargos and the Mount Hymettus ring road. It was controlled before dusk
with the intervention of strong aerial resources and the help of the ring road that
stopped the upslope spread of the eastern flank.
June 25,
2008
Mostly topography and wind driven crown fire, that started at the area of Glyka Nera
(NE side of the mountain). It run through a dense and tall pine forest, spreading upslope
and westwards, until it reached the top. It was controlled on the lee side. T=38οC,
RH=31%, North wind of 25km/h
July 16,
2008
Medium intensity surface and passive crown fire in a park of the municipality of
Kaisariani, below the ring road. Started around noon and was controlled a few hours
later with the help of aerial resources.
June 15,
2009
A fire that started at 15:25 in the area of Ano Glyfada and was stopped by dusk at the
border of a settlement in the municipality of Voula. It exhibited high intensity and
became a crown fire when it burned up-canyon.
July 17,
2015
A high intensity crown and surface fire. It burned southwards fanned by a strong
northern “meltemi” wind, reaching a maximum forward rate of spread of 2 km/h.
Additionally, it backed into the perpendicular to the direction of the wind canyons, at
an explosive maximum up-canyon rate of spread of 9 km/h.
August
10, 2017
A medium intensity surface fire between the municipalities of Kaisariani and Byron,
in relatively sparse vegetation that started around 14:00 and was controlled within two
hours with the help of aerial resources.
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Figure 1 - The most important fires on Mount Hymettus in the 1996-2007 period. The geodetic system of the map and
figure, is the Hellenic Geodetic Reference System 1987
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As the fires are clearly visible by the population of Athens, there are numerous reports, photos,
opinions and comments in the Mass Media and on the Internet regarding these events. In most of these
reports, the fires are attributed indiscriminately to “arsonists” who want to illegally occupy and
develop forest land on Mount Hymettus. The majority of the public subscribe to this scenario or
attribute the fire to political motives. In reality, there is no evidence leading to such conclusions. On
the contrary, the small number of cases solved so far, include an immigrant burning old furniture (22
July 1998), a professional gun technician practicing shooting for testing ammunition (15 June 2009),
a poor unemployed person with psychological problems who started multiple fires (3, 5, 14 and 22
July 2012), and two beekeepers who inadvertently started a fire while tending to their beehives using
smoke (17 July 2015).
The large number of fires on Mount Hymettus and the significant damages they cause, have
mobilized many people who live in the area to join volunteer groups, organized in each of the
municipalities that border the mountain, offering their time for its protection. Regarding forest fires,
these groups, in the summer, patrol the mountain, man lookout towers, and are immediately dispatched
for initial attack when a fire is detected. Their positioning on the mountain is a major advantage
because the traffic jams that Fire Service firetrucks face when coming from the Athens using the city’s
ring-road at the base of Mount Hymettus, often cause significant delays. On the other hand, the
volunteers, having only light firetrucks, sometimes cannot cope with intense fast spreading fires.
The majority of fires on Mount Hymettus have occurred from mid June to mid August. They usually
start on days with strong wind at the base of the mountain at the fridge of the city. Fire spread under
the strong wind is fast. Most importantly, as the fires run in a SW direction passing in front of the
downslope “mouth” of the canyons, they are drawn-in, in a clear demonstration of the so-called
“chimney effect”. Fire spread within the canyon is very fast due to flame attachment (Sharples et al.
2010) and convection caused preheating of fuels mainly along its axis. As these canyons are protected
to a large extent from the general wind, when there is significant amount of fuel, a strong convection
column usually develops (Figure 2).
Figure 2 - An up-canyon run at the heel of a wind driven fire on Mount Hymettus, on June 15, 2009, that created a
strong convection column separate from the column of the head of the fire (Source: amateur photo from
www.athens.indymedia.org)
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Figure 3 - The initial southwards spread of the Mount Hymettus fire of July 17, 2015, and the consecutive up-canyon
runs that followed.
Especially the behaviour of the July 17, 2015 fire presented an excellent case study: the fire spread
with the wind southwards and then succesively it backed-up four canyons. Recording the evolution of
the fires as shown in Figure 3, and identifying the location of the fire with time, positioning it was
possible to calculate the up-canyon rate of spread, in two runs, at 9 km/h and 7.8 km/h.
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The spread within the canyons at a perpendicular direction to the prevailing wind has surprised
many people and has been clearly the reason behind the deaths of three professional and one volunteer
firefighters on the fire of Kareas, on July 22, 1998, in one of the canyons (Figures 4 and 5)
(Xanthopoulos 2015). They stopped their fire truck at the bend of the road and tried to fight the fire
that had started spreading up-canyon. They were immediately overwhelmed by the heat and the smoke
and tried to run uphill in the canyon, entering a race that could not be won (Figure 6).
Figure 4 - The fire of Kareas of July 22, 1998,
spreading within a canyon, perpendicular to the
direction of the wind (Source: NET TV channel)
Figure 5 - The up-canyon spread of the fire of
Kareas shown on a satelitte image from Google
Earth. The main fire front advanced in a SW
direction.
Figure 6 - The canyon within which the fire spread, photographed approximately from the locatin where the four
firefighters died in 1998.
A few years later, on July 7, 2005, the same canyon burned again. This time it burned with a light
up-canyon (SW) wind. In spite of reduced fuel load, the direction of the wind and the canyon
topography resulted in a fire of significant intensity. Fortunately, this time the firefighters remained
away from the axis of the canyon. Most of the suppression work was left to the aerial resources that
included an Erickson S-64 helicopter and Canadair waterbombers (Figure 7).
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Figure 7 - Aerial firefighting during the up-canyon run of the Kareas fire on Hymettus mountain on July 7, 2005
(Photo: Foivos Theodorou, General Secretariat of Civil Protection, Greece)
The fire of July 17, 2015 also caused one fatality. This time it was a person jogging on the mountain,
on a road with a north-south direction. The fire ignited and started burning below this road. The jogger
called his family on his mobile to report about the fire saying that he was not worried. He was later
found dead, about 100 meters higher than the road. It is likely that he was surprised by one of the up-
canyon runs and tried unsuccessfully to escape to higher ground (Figure 8).
Figure 8 - The fire of July 17, 2015, on Mount Hymettus, which caused one fatality. The up-canyon fire spread in this
particular canyon reached 9 km/h.
The fires of Mount Hymettus constitute a very good case study that encapsulates important fire
prevention, behavior, firefighting and safety considerations. Regarding fire prevention the
effectiveness of the measures taken for preventing fire starts, that include fire lookouts, ground patrols,
and closed traffic bars on high fire danger days, can be judged as inadequate since a significant number
of fires erupts every year. The response for initial attack by volunteers and professional firefighters
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with fire trucks is generally good so most of these fires remain small. However, the problem of traffic
jams on the ring road at the western foothills of the mountain is clearly a central one as it results in
delays in the arrival of heavier firetrucks from the city when initial attack fails. A potential measure in
this direction is to condition the Athenian drivers, that often occupy the emergency lane in case of
traffic jams, to refrain from such practice. This can be achieved, for example, through regular traffic
police controls and special warning signs.
The fire behavior that has been observed and documented on Mount Hymettus, provides excellent
material for studying, understanding and modelling the phenomenon of fire spread within “box
canyons”. As Viegas and Pita (2004) have shown, even in cases of quite shallow canyons a blow-up
will always occur as long as space and time are available so that the fire to accelerate and create its
own wind. This is related to the observation that the runs within the canyons of Mount Hymettus take
place with some delay, after the general fire front has moved ahead in the direction of the wind (Figures
2 and 3).
The eruptive fire behavior on Mount Hymettus must clearly be taken into consideration in
firefighting plans. As stated by Viegas and Pita (2004), it is extremely dangerous to put resources at
any place on the slope above the fire, especially in canyon topography, as the fire acceleration can
occur at any time. This is even more important on the west-southwest facing slopes of Mount Hymettus
which are mostly covered with shrub fuels, a situation that has been identified as of maximum danger
by Page and Butler (2018) in a similar Mediterranean environment.
The knowledge presented here must clearly become part of the training of local firefighters,
including the volunteers who have already faced a loss in 1998. Additionally, the death of the civilian
in the 2015 fire shows that the public must be aware of the risk they may face in case of fires. The
number of visitors on Mount Hymettus is quite large and a disastrous event including fatalities is not
unlikely in case of extreme fire danger conditions. Forbidding visitor entrance to the mountain in case
of such conditions, or at least providing information to those entering, may not only prevent fire starts
but may also help avoid a potential disaster involving citizens.
The work presented here was carried out in the frame of the project MedWildFireLab (“Global
Change Impacts on Wildland Fire Behaviour and Uses in Mediterranean Forest Ecosystems, towards
a «wall less» Mediterranean Wildland Fire Laboratory”) a European ERANet FORESTERRA project
with funding from the General Direction for the Development and Protection of Forests and Agro-
environment of the Greek Ministry of Environment and Energy.
Page WG, Butler BW (2018) Fuel and topographic influences on wildland firefighter burnover
fatalities in Southern California. International journal of wildland fire, 27(3), 141-154.
Sharples JJ, Gill AM, Dold JW (2010) The trench effect and eruptive wildifres: lessons from the King’s
Cross Underground disaster. In ‘Proceedings of Australian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities
Council 2010 Conference’, 810 September 2010, Darwin, NT, Australia. (Australian Fire and
Emergency Service Authorities Council: Darwin, NT, Australia) Available at
http://www.maths.manchester.ac.uk/~jwd/articles/ 10-TEaEW.pdf [Verified 11 January 2018]
Viegas DX, Pita LP (2004) Fire spread in canyons. International Journal of Wildland Fire 13, 253-
274.
Xanthopoulos G (2015) Wildfires and safety issues in Greece. In ‘Current International Perspectives
on Wildland Fires, Mankind and the Environment’. (Eds B Leblon, M Alexander) (Nova Science
Publishers: Huntington, NY)
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
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