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Tuesday, 11 July, 2000, 20:02 GMT 21:02 UK
Fighting forest fires

It takes skill, courage and sophisticated technology to control forest fires, such as those raging this month in Greece, Bulgaria and Romania.

Forest fires in Europe
Destroy half a million hectares of land every year
Cost between 1,000 to 5,000 euros per hectare burnt
Are increasing in frequency
Are usually manmade

Source: European Commission
In the heat of summer, wildland fires spread quickly, and as they do the blaze grows in intensity.

If the wind is blowing, the flames can change direction unpredictably, making the firefighters' job highly risky.

Most dangerous is the tendency of the flames to leap across the tree tops, trapping the firefighters.

"You don't want to tackle the fire head on," Simon Webb, a fire officer at West Sussex fire brigade in the UK told BBC News Online.

"You must allow the fire to come to you."

Stopping the spread

The basic principle in fighting forest fires is to create a gap, or firebreak, across which the fire cannot move.

But it is a race against time for firefighters to clear the vegetation before the fire arrives.

Trying to get all those people and equipment out - at the right time and in the right place - is the hardest part

Fire officer Simon Webb
They also need good judgement to decide where to make the firebreak, and how wide it needs to be.

Where possible, they take advantage of streams, opens spaces or other natural obstacles.

If there is no natural break, one is dug - usually with ploughs and bulldozers. The sides are then soaked with water or chemicals to slow the combustion process.

Sometimes they use a technique known as "backburning", which involves starting another fire to create a firebreak.

It can all go disastrously wrong - but in theory, the two fires meet, and burn each other out.

Understanding the fire

Above all, forest firefighters need to be co-ordinated and well informed, both for their own safety, and if they are to stand any chance of outmanoeuvring the blaze.

"Trying to get all those people and equipment out - at the right time and in the right place - is the hardest part," said Mr Webb.

Samos firefighters
Helicopters are sometimes used to drop water or chemicals
Where possible, helicopters make preliminary investigations to find out exactly where the fire is, and how fast it is moving.

They then mark the fire on detailed maps of the area, and work out a line of retreat to be used in emergencies.

Sometimes the helicopter acts as a command post, and transports the firefighters and equipment to the front of the blaze.

Once the firefighters are in place, they stay in touch with two-way radios.

The command centre must stay in constant touch with the Meteorological Office to monitor weather conditions, and any sudden change in wind direction.

When the fire is intense - and resources permit - the fire is simultaneously attacked with water bombs dropped from aeroplanes, and sprayed by helicopters with fire-quenching chemicals.

Once a fire has been brought under control, helicopters equipped with infra-red scanners can be used to detect remaining heat sources.

As fire-fighting techniques increase in sophistication, satellite information is also used to monitor dry land, and get advance warning of likely fires.

However, the job of fighting forest fires is still fraught with difficulties. And success is far from certain.

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See also:

06 Jul 00 | Europe
Dozens die in Balkan heatwave
05 Jul 00 | Europe
Greece plans for heatwave
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