Summertime and the living isn’t always easy, here in Greece. My assignment is firefighting with a SkyCrane based in Athens. The flying we do with this impressive aircraft is called I.A. or initial attack. It is a simple program, get to the fire as quickly as possible and put it out.
You may think that this is the case for firefighting aircraft and personnel everywhere but I assure you it is not. It has been a very busy season protecting the City, the Attica region and the Cyclades Islands. By some accounts it has been a failure.
Our critics have been screaming on television for a couple of weeks now about the Hellenic Fire Brigade’ s inability to stop a wildfire that burned much of Parnitha, a National Park and Mountain overlooking Athens to the North West. I can take some satisfaction in knowing that I did some of my best flying on that fire and other fires in the area. The talking heads on the T.V. and so called experts can analyze, criticize and belittle the efforts of the firefighters on the ground and in the air. It is their democratic right and in a pre-election year I would expect no less.
It is probably a good thing that I can not understand most of what is being said on television. In more than 20 years of aerial firefighting in 6 countries I have seen a lot of firefighting operations but none more aggressive than the Greeks. The following is a recent example of a fire in Athens. To say that Athens is a concrete jungle with just a few green islands in the city is no exaggeration (picture from Webshots)
An afternoon dispatch call comes in for a fire in the south east side of Athens. We could see the smoke as we quickly got our flight suits on and jumped in the Crane. Our usual crew of two pilots and a pilot/interpreter in the back. The pilot/interpreter has the unenviable task of sorting out calls from three radios in two languages from numerous ground personnel, 6 other aircraft and cell phone calls from SKED our controlling agency.
The fire was quickly running through a tree covered hillside within a residential neighborhood of primarily apartment buildings. In the 15 minutes since we had launched, the ground forces had begun their defense with numerous pumper trucks and more personnel on the ground than we could possibly keep track of down in the tress.
We would have to make our drops with enough force to be effective on the crowning fire in the trees but not get a direct hit on any personnel. In Greece that is an even bigger challenge than elsewhere in the world. Along with keeping track of 4 Canadair water bombers, A Mil 26 with a 200′ line and bucket and another SkyCrane sent to help just minutes behind us we also had the citizens of this Athens community pitching in on the fire line. It is a common sight to see local residents with wet towels and T shirts pummeling the flames on the flanks and even the head of the fire in some cases. We hit the fire and the residual spray wets down the people and their fire towels and they run back into the fire line. I have never seen that any where else in the world. Its both impressive and frightening. We carry about 6 tonnes of water for each drop, the Canadair water bombers are about the same, the Mil 26 is a bit more. At any rate its enough water to flatten a car let alone a citizen in a pair of shorts and a soot blackened T-shirt. On this day the locals were working on the flanks of the fire only. The Fire Brigade was fighting the head of the fire and we were doing our best to get under the column of smoke, clear the numerous wires and drop on the fast advancing front. It was not going good and the Fire Brigade had been forced to back away from one road to another as the fire jumped each successive road. The fire was on the lee side of a hill crowning in the tree tops with 20′ to 30 ‘ flame heights. The Hellenic Fire Brigade had leap frogged their trucks and personnel to the last fire break before the apartment buildings. The line had been drawn. It was a little 14’ wide dirt road at the bottom of the hill. Behind the fire crew and their trucks stood about 100 people between the tree line and their apartments. Many people stood with dripping towels over their arms and I could tell by their hand gestures that they were shouting down to the Fire Brigade below. If you think for a second they were shouting encouragement to the fire crews, you don’t understand Athenians. They were probably shouting, stop that fire *#*^+# or we will be beating out more than just the fire!
Time for one more drop along the front then back to the sea for another load of water. Our return time would be about 9 minutes. The Fire Brigade stood along the road wetting down the close vegetation and waiting for the flames. The other aircraft were also heading to the sea for water and I said to the other pilot that I thought we would be fighting the new fire line at the apartments. The fire brigade would stand their ground but I was fairly certain the fire would spot over them or burn over them. I thought about what it would be like to see that flame front coming at you as you stood with a water hose and waited.
It occurred to me as we returned with our load of water that some of these people on the fire line may have had ancestors that had fought at places like Marathonas. Back in about 490 B.C. a hugely overwhelming force of Persians had landed on the plains of Marathon prepared to kick some Athenian ass. They did. The Persians killed almost 200 Athenians and lost about 6400 Persians doing it. That took the fight right out the world conquering Persians and they sailed for home.
We got over the fire a couple of minutes later. A black line stopped cleanly at the little dirt road and no fire spotted over the line. People at the apartments were waving towels and blankets, a few citizens on the fire flanks were waving their shirts. The fire Brigade was picking up tools and hoses and moving away. The job wasn’t over yet and there would be areas to mop up and wet down.
We spent another two hours flying the fire perimeter putting out flare ups and keeping things cool. Mission accomplished and back to our base. At the base we sat in front of the t.v. with a cold drink watching the news channel and listening to the experts scream at each other about the fires.
“What are they mostly saying?” I asked the interpreter. He just waved his hand in the universal back hand of dismissal. More bull shit.
The talking heads can have their say. I have been flying on fires for a lot of years and I’ll fight fires with these folks any day.