International effort to provide water bombing aircraft prompts Brussels to speed up creation of specialist airborne units
The unprecedented level of international co-operation seen as catastrophic forest fires forced thousands of Greek villagers to flee their homes is now spurring Europe to speed up the introduction of crack multinational firefighting teams to provide the most rapid and effective response in the future.
The offers of assistance of specialist firefighting equipment and personnel focused on Greece were co-ordinated through the European Commission's civil SOS emergency network. The EC, together with 25 member states, had already started developing the idea of setting up "response modules" and plans are being laid to speed up efforts to strengthen the firefighting infrastructure throughout Europe by as early as this autumn.
"These modules consist of readily deployable, pre-defined specialised clusters of personnel and equipment. Eleven key modules have been identified, one of them being a forest firefighting module," says an EC source.
As fires broke out on 24 August, devastating southern regions of Greece and claiming more than 60 lives, Greece asked the EC's Monitoring and Information Centre (MIC) to request European partners to provide water-bombing aircraft. Five firefighting Bombardier aircraft were swiftly dispatched by France (four) and Italy (one).
Another three Bombardier aircraft from Spain (two) and Portugal and seven specialist helicopters from Germany (three), the Netherlands (two) and Slovenia (one) were either on their way by 26 August or due to arrive soon after, while offers of additional help flooded in from member states under the aegis of the Community Mechanism for Civil Protection, whose stated aim is to provide the best possible response and preparedness when a major emergency strikes.
The EC says the response from the 30 states that are members of the mechanism had been the most significant offer of assistance to a member state since the European Union set up the civil protection mechanism in 2001 and was the thirteenth such request for assistance from a total of six countries since the beginning of the summer.
"All countries concerned have had to fight their own fires, but none has been as badly hit as Greece this summer," says the EC. "Many countries to the south and south-east of Europe have requested assistance this summer both inside and outside the EU. There is also an ongoing request for assistance from Albania. The Commission is waiting for member states to offer assistance."
Greece had alerted the EC to its need for additional firefighting water-bombing aircraft and helicopters on 27 June with a request to the MIC. According to the EC, within minutes the MIC had gone into action and had forwarded the call for assistance to its network of civil protection authorities. At that point Spain provided two Canadair CL-125T, Italy one Bombardier 415, France despatched two 415s and Portugal one Bombardier 215.
By 7 July the fires were under control, only to be reactivated 11 days later in Korinthos, Patra and Mani and the islands of Kithira and Cephalonia.
One European effort came from the German army air arm, which sent three Sikorsky CH-53 helicopters from the Laupheim air base in south-western Germany, which collected the 5,000 litre (1,320USgal) buckets used to fight forest fires that had been flown there by German air force transport aircraft the previous day.
The effort was not only confined to Europe. Canada asked to send up to five 215s and three support aircraft to Greece after the Canadian foreign affairs office received a request for assistance from the Greek embassy.
Tom Johnston, operations manager of the Interagency Forest Fire Centre in Winnipeg, confirmed that he was putting together an offer of three "packages" - air tanker groupings such as two 215s alongside a bird dog spotter aircraft and an air attack officer to scout ahead for tactics and safety.
"We've had three responses of possible packages from British Columbia, Alberta and Manitoba indicating their skimmer operations could be made available," Johnston says.
Johnston said Canada, with its total firefighting fleet of 75 aircraft, had been asked to help because the forest fire season was largely winding down although he added: "We of course still have to maintain a presence in Canada but we are prepared to give some of our assets."
Russian news service Interfax has reported that the nation - itself facing forest fires covering thousands of hectares - was ready to provide Greece with additional aircraft. Deputy emergency situations minister Alexander Chupriyan was quoted as saying on 28 August that it was not ruling out sending an Ilyushin Il-76TD equipped with a 42t water cannon.
Interfax also reported that Russian aircraft manufacturer Irkut was preparing a contract of the sale of six Beriev Be-200 amphibians to Greece.
Bombardier 415s have been among the aircraft fighting fires