Nea Makri, 13th September
We set off from Corté at 5.30 am on the 28th July. After a 60-hour journey over land and sea, we arrived in Greece, in Nea Makri. From 8 am on the 31st July, we – a rescue unit of 22 men and 3 women – were operational and ready to help the Greek fire brigade in the event of a wildfire.
When we arrived, the July fires had almost all been extinguished. The atmosphere was fairly normal, it was clear that the weeks previous had been intense (more than 170,000 hectares went up in smoke in three days, editor’s note), but it was under control. So for a fortnight we carried out our mission of pre-positioning the EU’s civil protection mechanism: getting to know the other Greek and European units, doing joint manoeuvres and seeing how each team worked etc.
The aim was to organise ourselves so that we could provide a coordinated response when the time came, which didn’t take long once the temperatures rose and the wind picked up. At half past noon on the 21st August, we were called to a major fire on the island of Ebe. The island of Ebe, which they call Evia, is joined to the Greek mainland by a viaduct. A two hour drive from our base and we were there. Around the farmhouse where we began, more than half the vegetation had burnt.
The longer the fire is allowed to continue, the bigger it becomes. We soon found an area from which we could begin to tackle the fire. We wanted to prevent it from crossing a certain stretch of land, because on the other side there was dense vegetation, which once caught, would be difficult to stop.
As the fire, driven by the wind, accelerated, we managed, albeit with difficulty, to extinguish the flames in the targeted area. However, the fire succeeded in getting through a different way, behind us. So we moved back up, between the burnt area and the vegetation, to complete the extinguishing.
Just as we thought we had the situation under control and the fire had died down, the wind changed – in the South of France, we have more or less the same vegetation, but we’re not used to so many changes in the wind in such a short space of time. A sergeant suddenly heard the fire crackling louder and louder in a patch where there had been, just a few minutes earlier, only a small, stable fire. That’s when we realised that the fire was no longer going in its original direction, it was coming up on us! And it became a front of flames dozens of metres long and several metres high.
It was a very tense moment, with both our personnel and our lorries under threat. We decided to split up, with some of us taking cover and the others staying behind. I stayed, and after discussing with the Greek sergeant, we managed to anticipate the direction of the fire, stop it and prevent it from crossing the area where we were.
However, in the meantime, the other fire that had passed behind us earlier had already begun to burn down the vegetation we were trying to protect. We realised that there was no longer any hope of fighting it and abandoned that section.
Later that day, we went back. Combining our resources with those of the Greeks, we set up a highly effective operation that we continued throughout the night. By morning, we had succeeded in extinguishing all the edges. When we left the island, around 500 hectares had burnt down.
Greece is confronted with some pretty extreme situations, with gigantic fires and whole swathes of vegetation sometimes going up without any hope of saving them. For example, you’ll have a pine forest completely burn down without any possibility of intervening.
I’m very proud to have helped our Greek colleagues fight these major fires. I think that this summer has reinforced and proved the need for this European mechanism. Of course, the Greeks are prepared for these events, but to have so many resources and so much manpower available at very short notice is a precious help when you’re in a situation that is, initially, completely overwhelming.
This summer, Nicolas and 24 other French firefighters spent a month and a half in Greece on a pre-positioning mission. The mission, which was created by the European Civil Protection Mechanism, was designed to enable units from different European countries to coordinate their forces in anticipation of the summer fires. Over the course of two months, Nicolas and his colleagues fought fires that ravaged hundreds of thousands of hectares of countryside. As the mission draws to a close, the captain looks back on these difficult weeks.