Firefighters from have swapped the Welsh valleys for the Greek mountains as they battle the raging wild fires tearing through Greece.
Craig Hope, Dean Evans, Ross Hughes and Chris Deacon, all from the South Wales Fire and Rescue Service, left Wales at 4am on Sunday to join crews on the western side of Athens, where fires have destroyed houses and brought down power lines.
Craig is leading a team tasked with analysing the direction of the fires and weather and ensuring firefighters are “safe at all times”.
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On Thursday afternoon, the day after the foursome spent hours protecting houses from being gobbled up by flames, Craig was “mopping up” the fire-ravaged mountainside.
“Obviously because we have flown out, we haven’t brought any engines with us,” Craig explained. “But once the fire is burning through these villages and the aircraft have stopped the fires, our crew go in as early as we can get in there and then we are mopping up and looking for all the hot spots.
“That’s what the crew are doing now; they are down in the valley. They’ve managed to get hold of a drone and they’re flying that and identifying hotspots, using thermal imaging, and our crew are going in then and making sure they’re extinguished.”
It’s a constant battle against conditions as the humidity begins to drop in the middle of the day and the wind starts building again. The risk of fires reigniting is significant, Craig said standing on the mountainside where temperatures had reached 40 degrees just a few days before.
The crew from Wales; from left to right: Dean Evans, Ross Hughes, Craig Hope and Chris Deacon
(Image: South Wales Fire and Rescue Service)
“It’s important that we get on top of them,” Craig said.
“And what it also does is it allows the Greek firefighters to re-establish themselves, get back, have a rest and be ready for the next fire.”
The wildfires in Greece, which began nearly two weeks ago, have been described as scenes from an “apocalyptic movie” and labelled “a natural disaster of unprecedented proportions” by the country’s prime minister. Earlier in the week, smoke and ash from Evia, Greece’s second-largest island just off the mainland, blocked out the sun and turned the sky orange. Pristine pine forests as well as homes and businesses have been destroyed while hundreds of people have been forced to quickly evacuate by sea to save their lives.
Surveying the scene on Thursday, Craig compared the Greek terrain to the Rhondda valley and said: “It’s like being in Cardiff and looking towards the Rhondda Valley and everything is black.”
He added: “Because we haven’t got fire engines, we’re not at the forefront with the 30 metre flames. But our job is just as important. We’re making sure there’s no more ignitions because that really does tie up resources. Mopping up is essential on these mountain fires.
“So it’s worthwhile, the work we’re doing.”
‘Mopping up’ on the fire-ravaged mountainside
(Image: Craig Hope)
Using Welsh fire fighting skills in Greece
(Image: Craig Hope)
A helicopter dropping water over a fire in Galatsonas village on Evia island on Wednesday
The skills they’ve brought to their Greek colleagues were learned straight out of the Welsh mountains, said Craig, where hundreds of wildfires every year have meant Wales is at the forefront of fire fighting techniques. This year, the Welsh service recorded more than 80 suspected deliberate fires over the course of a single weekend in April.
Whether wildfires are caused by arson or natural causes, the principles in tackling them remain the same he said.
“South Wales is always hit by lots and lots of wildfires, every year, and about 14 years ago there was a project where we decided that we needed to move on,” Craig explained. Part of their new “toolbox of skills” is the use of tactical burning or “using fire to fight fire”.
“The Greeks are really experienced in fighting wildfires; they have really good equipment and really good fire engines and lots of aircraft,” he continued.
“But one thing they don’t use is tactical fire. We’re in the forests, working here in Greece, whereas in south Wales, we would have burnt out the vegetation already. We are always discussing and talking and learning from each other. And this might be something they take forward in the future.”
The Greek terrain is just like the Welsh valleys, said Craig Hope
(Image: Craig Hope)
The burned-out mountainside
(Image: Craig Hope)
Fires in Evia destroyed forests and turned the sky orange
(Image: Getty Images)
The causes of the Greek fires are as yet undetermined. Greece has been baked by its worst heat wave in three decades, which sent temperatures up to 45 degrees and turned its prized pine forests into bone-dry tinderboxes. Several people have been arrested for alleged arson and Greece’s top prosecutor has ordered an investigation into whether the high number of fires could be linked to criminal activity.
“It’s going to take a lot of work to put it out completely,” said Craig. “But I think it’s under control now. We just got to keep on top of it now.
“It was 40 degrees on Monday and Tuesday and it was really hot right up on the mountains in the forestry. We’re not so high today, but it’s still very hot and it’s also very windy which obviously spreads the fire quickly.”
Craig is more than qualified to offer advice to the Greek authorities, with 28 years of experience in the fire service and the UK wildfire practical advisor and part of the advanced fire analyst network for Europe.
But it’s also a position he didn’t want to be in: “I get enough exposure to fire in South Wales and across the UK, but things are going to get worse,” he said. “And we need to learn to live with fire. We need to understand that not all fire is bad and we need fire on the landscape. It’s just what type of fire. The risk is going to get worse if climate change predictions are right, even in the south Wales valleys, we need to be ready for that.”
The four firefighters from South Wales Fire and Rescue Service teamed up with crews from all over the UK as part of the National Fire Chief Council’s National Resilience Team.
The normal international deployment time is about 10 days long, according to Craig, but there is uncertainty around exactly how long they will be out there.
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