National Geographic Croatia, June 2008

The sun had appeared this third morning too, yet Zoran Grljević and his colleagues did not welcome it refreshed for the new day. Instead of going to get rest, they lit new cigarettes and continued waiting. “It’ll arrive soon; just ten more minutes, and it’s here!” Zoran said almost inaudibly with his voice hoarse and painfully worn out after two nights of intensive yelling. Written on the guys’ T-shirts were the words: Dubrovnik Fire Brigade. This all made them sick, who knows where else they will have to suffer in their hot firefighting uniforms. They stood alongside their fire truck with only about a hundred liters of water remaining in the tank, amidst a stretch of rough terrain of macchia and low pinewood, and watched the sunrise. Some fifty meters away, the fire’s frontline slowly advanced towards them. “At least, thank God, there is no wind this morning!” said Zoran with a husky and faint voice. “But two nights ago, at Mokošica… argh! Good thing you weren’t there. The fire jumped from tree top to tree top, and when it approached the suburb, people scattered like mice.” He became silent again, raising his index finger to “measure” the wind, then turned around and worryingly repeated: “There’s no wind now, but you never know. It’s like the Devil. It blows whenever you do not need it.”

As it advanced, the fire front left behind a devastated blackness. Slowly but surely, it traveled towards us and devoured all the dried vegetation it came across. One of the firefighters from this small combat group went towards the nearest bush that stood between the fire front and us, and shouted as loudly as he could with a voice as hoarse as the others’, “Hey, you journalist, don’t shoot this! You didn’t see a thing!” He crouched beneath the bush, bringing the lighter closer to it. In less than five seconds after he had set it on fire, the dry macchia burst into flame. A few more guys joined him, and brought the low vegetation to kindle. Bounded by the straight fire line on one side, the newly risen fire front started to move towards the bigger one that was approaching us. Out of context, the scene of firefighters setting a low forest on fire could certainly be misunderstood. However, one way of fighting against such a fire is, among other things, with fire itself. Firefighters set counter-fires to destroy the biomass that is in the way of the main fire front. If there is no wind that could send flames to the other side of the fire line, then the fire runs out of fuel needed for spreading, and stops.

It happened in this case. The fire that firefighters had set ate the strip of biomass some ten meters away from the fire line before it caught up with the advancing frontline. The two flaming fronts collided and merged into one, flaring up for a moment. Firefighters from the top of the vehicle squirted the last drops of water along the remaining hundred meters long fire front. Just then, a devilish wind had started to blow, throwing flames all the way to the firefighting vehicle in the middle of the cleared fire line. If there had been no counter-attack, the fire would have crossed over to the other side, which would have additionally embittered, if not endangered firefighters’ lives. But this way, everything had burned up in a minute or so, and while smoke was innocuously rising from the fire site, the guys took their places in the vehicle, and drove off to another location. While waiting for the next fire front to approach from the distance, they all fell asleep from exhaustion: the driver at the steering wheel, and the others on the ground. Only Zoran lit up a new cigarette to try to monitor the advancing flames and keep open his eyes that were swollen between puffed black circles and heavy eyelids.

The Dubrovnik Fire had already been raging for the last sixty hours. It had arrived from Bosnia and Herzegovina, passed over mined territory, and destroyed over three thousand hectares of low vegetation. More than 500 people were extinguishing it; and most of them had not slept for a single moment during those past two days and nights. New volunteer firefighter forces were now arriving from other parts of Croatia, ready to replace the exhausted firefighters and help localize the fire. The new troops that were trudging their way on foot towards us, through growths of macchia at the other side, consisted of a dozen of long-haired young men with heavy metal T-shirts from Međimurje (the northern part of Croatia). They carried knapsacks on their backs, with approximately ten liters of fire retardant mixture in each, and some impractical hatchets in their hands, which they had used to clear their way through the macchia. However, these hatchets were really useless. The newcomers walked up to the sleepy firefighters and asked them what they should do. The firefighters sent them to improve the conditions at the recent fire site that was still smoldering. The young boys hesitated for a while, commenting among themselves that they would like to do something more exciting, and how they had arrived too late for “the action.” Nevertheless, they obeyed their superiors. Ten minutes later, they returned with empty knapsacks. The vehicle’s tank was also empty, said the driver, who had suddenly woken up when Zoran yelled that the fire front was approaching. “What will we do now?” one of the newcomers asked in a panic. “We will extinguish it with fire,” said one of the firefighters and then he repeated the counter-attack procedure. Half an hour later, the last tiny flame disappeared from the horizon, and the firefighters, completely exhausted, flung themselves back on the ground, and sunk to sleep.

The horrendous fire that had devoured all of the vegetation in the region between the border of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the county of Dubrovnik, and Konavle, and that had almost reached Dubrovnik itself, confirmed that the year 2007 was a year of serious wildfires. While there had been fewer fires during the three previous years, this year began resembling the catastrophic year of 2003, or even millennial 2000— which was the worst in more recent Croatian history. In that season, 130,000 hectares of arable land suffered in almost 8000 wildfires, which is almost 15 times more than in moderate 2004. I first started researching wildfires in 2005. That year, I spent two weeks in the main firefighting center at Divulje, near the city of Split. I wanted to study, watch, and “catch” fires with my camera, but firefighter commanders just laughed at me, because I was not “catching” anything. Fortunately, that summer had a relatively small number of wildfires. As soon as some notification would arrive to Divulje, I would get into my car and speed like a bullet to the location. However, whenever I would arrive there, the fire would have already been under control, and the main body of fire put out by firefighting airplanes.

In 2007, I took this “assignment” up again because everything was indicating that this year could have a lot of fires. The winter had been warm and humid, while vernal rains had fallen rather late. These were favorable conditions for vegetation growth, which also meant an increase in combustible biomass. Although it is generally believed that the increase in the number of wildfires worldwide is a result of global warming of the atmosphere, Marko Vučetić, a meteorologist at the National Meteorological and Hydrological Service in Zagreb, who primarily studies the meteorological aspects of wildfires, told me that in Croatia, global warming does not manifest itself as an increase in dry seasons or drought. “There is a very slight increase in temperature because of global warming, but we also record a slight increase in precipitation, too. However, as a result of this increase in precipitation, more vegetation grows, hence more combustible biomass is created, and, in the end, more wildfires occur. Indeed, young low-growth vegetation is much more inflammable than old tall-treed forests.”

Mr. Vučetić explained how the main meteorological elements that affect the appearance and expansion of wildfires are solar radiation, air temperature, relative air humidity, precipitation, wind speed and direction, and vertical atmospheric structure. Wildfires in the Mediterranean area, including the Adriatic region, are part of the eternal process of natural renewal of forests. It is a natural phenomenon so old that many common plants have adapted to it quite well. Aleppo pine, for example, holds seeds in its cone that are resistant to temperatures up to 800°C. After the wildfire, the cones open and release their seeds. Thus offshoots grow like mushrooms after the first rain, explained Vučetić, adding, “The history of Croatian coastal forests and of the entire vegetation cover is, in fact, a cycle of destruction and renewal by fire!”

When I arrived in Divulje, everybody laughed at me again, because I had been late to the first few fires that I had chased the previous summer. “There are many parameters that determine the life of a wildfire,” Zoran Jurčec, a firefighting operative, told me. Indeed, apart from the weather, these parameters are: the humidity of ground and vegetation, type and height of vegetation, flammability and combustibility of biomass, relief, swiftness of notification, accessibility of terrain, swiftness and quality of intervention… Nevertheless, under classical summer conditions, the most important factor is precipitation. No matter what the precipitation is during winter and springtime, the high fire hazard index means 30 days of a continuous absence of precipitation. That July, not a single drop of rain had fallen in Dalmatia. The big destructive wildfires on the island of Šolta and in Velebit Mountain had already occurred. By the end of July, the telephones at the main center of the National Protection and Rescue Directorate in Divulje were ringing non-stop. During one short pause between constant notifications and interventions, Zoran Jurčec told me, “We have entered the most intensive period. We are processing some sixty wildfires daily!” Notifications were arriving to the main center from all parts of the coastal region, and operatives were forwarding them to county firefighting commanders. They also reallocated human forces from one fire site to another, and, if needed, sent firefighting airplanes to combat fires. While there, I visited fire sites that were not far away from the center, but always arrived too late. Upon my return to the base, the people always laughed at me. “Listen, we obviously do our job very well!” Zoran told me. That summer, Croatian fire brigades extinguished 89% of fires within 5 hectares, or 83% of fires within 4 hours after the initial notification.

When a notification had arrived one evening that a wildfire started above Kaštela, operatives had activated firefighters who were on duty in Divulje, and I arrived at the site with the first group of vehicles. Despite the prohibition of burning agricultural waste during the summer time, one inhabitant had burned agricultural waste in his garden, and the fire had expanded, devouring a hut on his land. As usual when a fire appears near a settlement, many inquisitive locals, willing to help, gathered at the fire site. Firefighters tightened the grip around the fire, localizing it quickly. Very soon, they extinguished it. Firefighters remained to monitor the terrain, and locals stayed with them. Enough time passed since the fire was extinguished, but Kaštelans’ blood was still boiling. I was standing among the small group of them, listening to what they were saying. Although they were, undoubtedly, glad that the danger was eliminated, the adrenalin still pumped into their veins, and they felt sorry for not arriving in time to be involved in the action of extinguishing. I threw a cigarette butt in the middle of the asphalt road, stamped it hard with my sole, then lifted it up and put into my pocket, while one of locals suddenly snapped at me: “Hey, check this out… who is this stranger? What are you doing here?” While I was explaining, the grip of more and more people had tightened around me. They did not listen, nor did they believe me. “Why are you throwing cigarette butts here? Did you set the fire here?” I reminded the blusterer that he was also holding a cigarette in his hand too. For them, it did not matter that the road was wet after extinguishing the fire, that everything around was burned, and that there were several firefighting vehicles around us. Instead, they were ready for some sort of lynch. But luckily, they were stopped in the last moment by a police officer.

Aside from awaking noble virtues in human beings, like selflessness and willingness to help and protect those who are in danger, the phenomenon of wildfires sometimes brings out some human characteristics that are not so glorious. Quarrels among people are often a big problem in the firefighting system itself. “For a long time we had a problem with firefighting in southern Adriatic islands,” said Mladen Jurin, the chief firefighting commander in the Republic of Croatia. “Islanders do not understand that, as far as fires are concerned, their island is one, indivisible unit. It looks like one district consists of many separate states. People from one VFA (Volunteer Firefighting Association) sometimes did not want to help other VFAs, and avoided participating with the excuse that other parts of the island are not their concern. However, when a fire spreads, it does not ask what belongs to whom,” complained Jurin. He explained how they managed to eliminate the problem: “We appointed several professional firefighting formations, one for each south Adriatic island. Those formations always stay on duty and they react to every single wildfire, no matter what part of the island is burning. Maybe this is the main reason why no disastrous wildfires had occurred on these islands since.”

However, there are many exceptionally positive examples throughout the Croatian coastal region, emphasized Jurin, mentioning that it depends primarily on the local community and their involvement. “One positive example is Istria,” he said. “There are no less than seven professional units there that are continuously inspecting the terrain, as a measure of prevention. The Split- Dalmatian County, in comparison, has only two professional units. Furthermore, Istria has covered the entire terrain with cameras, and has organized an effective center for quick data processing and sending of fire brigades to sites.”

“The system on the island of Rab is even better,” said Jurin. “Because locals are aware of how dangerous wildfires can be, and have developed their own fire-prevention system.” The one behind Rab’s story is a charismatic firefighter, Mr. Josip Jaška. This quiet and dedicated professional, described by his colleagues as one of those rare people who talk little and work a lot, had achieved, as a longtime fire brigade commander, such great results that the other firefighters did not let him retire. In mid August, the fire season started to abate, and I went to Rab to find out what Mr. Josip Jaška’s secret was. I found a wealthy old man who was not willing to talk about himself, but was willing to share the efficient firefighting strategy that he himself had developed. He is a frequent guest at the firefighting school and at the college of forestry, where he eagerly transfers his knowledge to younger generations. However, he never talks about any anecdotes from his life, so others pass these stories around and with time begin shaping into legends. One of these stories says that he had participated in the Cuban Revolution, fighting side by side with famous Che Guevara. Maybe this is from where he draws his military revolutionist discipline that he easily imposes on others by means of his positive authority, say colleagues about him.

He only talked about the fires with me. “On the island of Rab, neither do we have professional units, nor do we receive any significant amount of money from the government. The equipment is old, but we have people! That’s what’s most important!” explained Mr. Jaška, with his peaceful and pleasant voice. “We watch over the terrain non-stop, from land and from sea, we dig fire lines, we regularly send inspections; respond even to the smallest smoke! Nobody can start a barbecue in open space without seeing us only a few minutes after starting. There is no lethargy of the system here; all officers are allowed to make decisions instantly whenever they happen to be at the fire site. We are conscious of the fact that, in the case of a great fire, nobody from outside could give us any considerable help in time, so we have taken matters into our own hands.” The people that live on Rab depend primarily on tourism, and they are aware that any greater wildfire could have a catastrophic impact on their lives and economy. To preserve the idyllic atmosphere for tourists, firefighters do not even use their sirens whenever they intervene. Before a fire season, firefighters visit people, talk with them, they educate them themselves, automatically engaging them to contribute with their own deeds.

“There are only 130 of us firefighters on Rab,” continued Jaška, “So all inhabitants of the island immediately inform firefighters when they notice any smoke, and immediately participate in extinguishing the fire. We developed a firefighting culture among our islanders that is of a priceless value for the protection of our island.” One of the most essential measures that Josip Jaška has figured out and put into practice concerns the burning of agricultural waste. This practice, unless being controlled by firefighters, is completely forbidden in the period from May to the end of October. Similar laws are also effective in other parts of Croatia, but they are practically not implemented there. “If somebody has to burn some agricultural waste, there is no reason why not to call a fire brigade in advance, which is always possible, for the sake of controlling the fire,” Mr. Jurin explained, while talking about all of Croatia, “But people do not obey such laws, because they feel as if they are doing something illegal, and they fear that fire brigades would do nothing more then fine them. Moreover, they think it is easier to do the burning themselves.”

However, these fires that run out of control are the most frequent cause of wildfires. No less than 79% of total wildfires in Croatia are caused by carelessness and inattention. “Rab locals are not afraid of fire brigades, instead they cooperate with them, so on the island there are rarely any fires that cover more than a hectare of land, and even more rarely are there any forest fires that swallow more than a hectare of forest,” said Jurin. It is true, the fire hazard is smaller in the northern part of Adriatic, due to a higher level of precipitation there, but experts do agree also that, unquestionably, a more efficient and complete firefighting system plays a significant role too. This was confirmed to me by an anecdote, dear to everybody on Rab, that Josip Jaška, an otherwise quiet and calm person, had gone “crazy” on one occasion when one solitary, tall pine-tree in a meadow was destroyed in a fire.

In Croatia, burning fields down for agricultural reasons is a practice that dates, without any doubt, to at least the 6th century B.C., and most likely it dates even a few thousand years earlier, with its roots dating back to the time of the beginning of agriculture. People regularly burned abandoned lands to fertilize the ground with ashes and prepare it for sowing. However, “Illyrians never burned forests systematically, unlike their contemporaries, Greeks, who even used wildfires for military purposes,” says Željko Španjol, professor of forestry. “To Illyrians, forests were sacred!”

As the time passed, the motives for clearing forests by fire changed greatly. People set them either for the extraction of ashes for potash, or for the derivation of charcoal, or even just for the fun of it! During his visit to Dalmatia in the 18th century, Venetian travel-writer Fortis recorded that “fires that shepherds set, sometimes to warm themselves, but sometimes to enjoy in a wild scene, had destroyed even themselves. It is said that such wildfires, caused by benign reasons, had sometimes lasted for months.”

Fortis also mentions residents of the town of Senj, citing that “Those rascals, by burning big forest fires, or by throwing large quantities of burning branches into gorges, used to stimulate a wind that could cumber the enemies’ vessels into landing along their coasts!” The conventional assumption that Venetians cut down all trees from the mountain of Velebit is not true. “Every piece of our mainland had been on fire at some point in time, and all these islands that are bare today used to be covered with woods!” says Španjol. “Look at Kornati islands! The people from Murter, who used to own Kornati, had burned them all down to create pasture grounds for their sheep and goats!”

All until the middle of the past century, the coastal region’s landscape was, in general, different than it is today. Fields of crops stretched along the foothills, followed by terraces of vineyards, and then houses situated in the middle of the hillsides. Above these were olive orchards and vineyards, followed by forests along the hilltops. So when people burned their fields, the forests were far away from the fire! A quick depopulation of the rural coastal region began around the middle of the past century, leading to abandonment of the cultivable terrains. The upper zone became completely overgrown, and forests extended next to fields into the valleys. New roads additionally intersected throughout the entire territory, with houses and gardens built alongside them. “Nowadays, when someone burns agricultural waste, a forest is next to their field, and it is quite understandable why we record such a big increase in the number of wildfires!” Španjol said, and then concluded, “Formerly in rural areas there had been many more people with much more cattle and agricultural areas, and they had controlled their land in a much more effective way! As the population decreases, forests spread very quickly over pastures and abandoned fields, hence more combustible biomass grows and more fires occur!”

August was already at its end, and the fire season was slowly taking a downward course. No wildfire during August surpassed the catastrophic one in Dubrovnik that had burned down a record-high 3500 hectares of vegetation. Other than great material damage, there were no human lives lost that summer, except for one firefighter who had suffered from a heart attack while on assignment on August 29. That in itself was a great loss. From the year 2004 onward, there were no direct losses of human lives at wildfire sites. Therefore, when the next day had dawned, nobody could surmise that it would be a fatal day.

30th August was an airless, partly cloudy day. The temperature was 28°C, relative air humidity 61%, and the south wind blew at the speed of 6m/s, sporadically up to 10m/s. Shortly before noon, a fire appeared at the rocky, deserted island of Kornat. The fire started at the cove of Vrulje, and gradually crossed from one hassock to another. Carried by the wind, it climbed the slope of a gorge above the cove of Šipnate.

Thirteen firefighters were transported by helicopter to Kornat. After all those wildfires that had appeared in the Croatian coastal region up to that day, it seemed that this one was nothing more than routine. Therefore, firefighters did not even wear complete protective gear. Only young Frane Lučić wore a visor over his head. He carried a little bit more firefighting equipment than the others did, and hence he moved a bit more slowly than the others. When they arrived to the south slope, where the fire was progressing upwards, a blast of heat struck them, and within fifteen seconds a deadly flame passed over them. Frane was the only one who managed to find shelter, while the visor and protective equipment saved his life. Twelve other firefighters were not so lucky.

It was the greatest tragedy in the history of Croatian firefighting. The day of August 30th was proclaimed a national day of mourning. Numerous scientific and police investigations were initiated with the purpose of discovering what had actually happened there. Families of the deceased firefighters, strongly shaken by the tragedy, searched for brittle comfort by demanding an explanation as to who was responsible for that tragic incident.

Seven months after the tragedy, in March of 2008, in Zagreb, I met Marko Vučetić, a meteorologist, and Željko Španjol, a vegetation and forestry expert. A day earlier, they had turned in to the President and the Prime Minister their final report on the Kornat tragedy with scientific explanations, which they had been preparing for the past six months in collaboration with experts from other fields. Using scientific methods, they analyzed the weather conditions, vegetation, spreading of fire, and aerodynamic, as well as thermodynamic events at the fire site on August 30th. “On that fatal day, everything coincided as though the black devil himself had put it all together!” said Mr. Vučetić. “So far, in the study of wildfires, not enough attention had been paid to grassy terrains, because it had been assumed that the hazards in such places are minor. This is true in 99.9% of all cases, but when a multitude of parameters coincide precisely in such terrain, an effect called eruptive fire happens. It turns out that the grassy vegetation is a blazing fuel that, when set on fire, is more dangerous than wood. It releases evaporable organic components that burn rapidly and can lead to eruptive fire behavior. Just a slope and a fire are enough for such a phenomenon; and there is even no need for a wind. In some specific circumstances, the eruptive fire behavior may spread windward as well as down the slope!”

Vučetić pointed out that eruptive fire behavior is extremely rare, and that there were just a few cases recorded in history, namely in the USA, Portugal and Corsica, hence it is not sufficiently researched. Because of that, the Kornat tragedy has attracted many scientists, including Xavier Viegas from Portugal, who is the leading expert on eruptive fire behavior. “After the tragedy at Kornat, fundamental changes were made in the study of wildfires and fire protection in Croatia, in the same manner as the Chernobyl catastrophe led to fundamental changes being made in environmental protection worldwide” said Mr. Vučetić, adding, “Unfortunately, it seems that such a tragedy had to happen in order to teach people more, so that they could finally understand the importance of a thorough study of fires, and accordingly, the implementation of the exact preventive and protective measures.”

Španjol joined our conversation: “We have excellent and prestigious people, top-level commanders, and volunteer firefighters who do their job out of pride, but extinguishing fires should not be done merely based on experience in the field any more. In the first place, it is important to study wildfires thoroughly, then to properly educate firefighters. In Croatia, there is still no special firefighting training for forest fires. If people with a good knowledge of forest fires would be placed at the head of wildfire protection, the story would be quite different.”

Therefore, Španjol and some other scientists started a scientific project for reasearching inflammability, combustibility and moisture levels of the local vegetation. “The problem is that the estimates for fire hazards in Croatia are based on the Canadian FWI (fire weather index) model that was developed according to the combustion characteristics of the Canadian red pine,” explained Španjol. That model is not bad, many countries use it, but the vegetation situation in Croatia is quite different, so it would be more precise to make an index that would be based on local species.”

Therefore, already at the beginning of the past fire season, scientists from the College of Forestry started measurements in open laboratories on the island of Rab and in the city of Makarska. Experimental specimens of the ten most essential Croatian tree species (evergreen oak, Aleppo pine, pinaster, strawberry tree, mock privet, myrtle, wayfaring tree, mastic, tree heath, prickly juniper) are exposed to atmospheric conditions there. Measurements of the inflammability of fine forestry combustible material, like leaves, also take place there. The rhythm of wetting and desiccation of combustible materials, as well as the time required for its inflammation and duration of combustion is measured on a daily basis. “These data, together with relevant climatologic, geological and other relevant data that could help in creating an integral model of the protection of forests from fire,” concluded Španjol, emphasizing that, after the Kornat tragedy, the government had become more serious in understanding the role of scientists in the study of wildfires. The tragedy stimulated the already existing initiative for laying down the foundations of a regional center for the study of open area wildfires. In addition, a considerable amount of money had been used to purchase new air firefighting devices. “Two new aircrafts of the Canadair type were purchased, as well as three new aircrafts of the Air Tractor type, and probably we will get some more new helicopters,” explained Jurin. In 2007, damage caused by wildfires exceeded 212 million dollars, while the total investment for fire prevention and protection had risen to a record-high 170 million dollars. “It’s up to us to invest in fire prevention and protection as much as possible,” concluded Mr. Jurin, “But fires are such a complex phenomena that, in spite of our best efforts and increasing knowledge, in spite of the experience and money invested, we can only hope that the damage will be as little as possible!”

With respect to human lives, the situation is a bit more difficult. Families of firefighters that died in the tragedy in Kornati cannot make peace with the fact that they lost their loved ones. As the new fire season of 2008 begins, they are looking for those who were responsible, so that their reasonless loss can have at least some kind of explanation. Quite understandably, the scientific explanation, which says that it had been a very rare natural phenomenon, not yet sufficiently understood to be predictable, and that therefore it had not been possible to educate the firefighting personnel to be capable of preventing such a tragedy in time, is not satisfactory to them. The idea that their sons, husbands, brothers, and fathers had paid with their lives, the noble act of firefighting, on bizarre, deserted, and bare rocky terrain, is unbearable to them.

The only survivor from that sad story, the hero and lucky one, Frane Lučić, still regularly undergoes rehabilitation therapy. His father Vilim drives him to the hospital. I call him by phone. He lost his fingers in the fire, and it is hard for him to answer the call. However, he manages to do that. I hear a cheerful and optimistic voice from the other side of the line. “I feel good, and the rehabilitation is progressing well,” says Frane. “What happened, happened! There is no need to regret, life goes on.”