As temperatures soar, residents of some Greek suburbs are putting their money on early-warning drones to stop wildfires before they spread.
The nightmare repeats itself every year: a towering wall of flames is swallowing forests, fields and homes, forcing animals and people to flee for their lives.
With its hot, dry summers, Greece and its southern European neighbors experience hundreds of devastating wildfires each year.
Only last week 21 people died due to forest fire in Greece. More than 100 people lost their lives in the country’s deadliest case in 2018. And experts have warned that climate change is likely to worsen weather conditions, making wildfires more likely to flare up.
This summer, a group of residents in a green suburb of the Greek capital banded together to prevent the nightmare from reaching their homes.
In less than a week in early August, an initial group of three people with a shared concern grew into an online community of about 320 people, using long-range drones equipped with thermal imaging cameras as a sophisticated early warning system. Offered a donation to hire a company that uses it. Catch him before the wildfire spreads.
It is a tried and tested method. The drone, designed and installed with the help of Grigoris Konstantelos, a commercial airline pilot and mayor of the southern Athens seaside suburbs of Vari, Voula and Vouliagmeni, started operating there last year.
Contantelos said of the program, “We didn’t invent it, we created it.” “We said, ‘Why shouldn’t this capability exist?’”
The system appeared to be the perfect solution for the concerned residents of the northern suburbs of Kifisia, Ekli and Nea Erythraia.
“We’re all anxious, we’re all worried,” said Melina Throwvala, a psychologist and one of the initial group of three. “We don’t want to mourn for the victims, or see our environment and forests burning or our homes threatened. That was the main motivation”.
And wildfire prevention is important.
Operated by drone pilots with advanced training to fly beyond the visual line and with permission from civil aviation authorities, the drones provide live images and detect temperature changes, alerting their operators to critical early stages before fires spread. alert.
‘The first few minutes are the most important’
The drones operate 24/7, with pilots working six-hour shifts.
“The first few minutes are the most important for a fire,” said Giorgos Dirtilis, head of the local volunteer fire unit. “In the beginning it is easy to put out a fire. As the minutes go by, our job becomes more difficult.”
Volunteer units are integrated into Greece’s civil defense system, working closely with professional fire departments. With no fire stations in the wider Kifisia area, volunteers can often reach local fires quickly.
The drone company is operated from the headquarters of volunteer firefighters, so they can quickly respond to any sign of fire.
The value of the drone program was immediately apparent.
In the first few days, a fire broke out near a closed hotel, “so when we were on the way … we knew we were going to see fire,” Dirtilis said.
He immediately extinguished the fire. “It is very important to know what to expect”.
The innovation of the system is that it includes specialized personnel, software, servers and satellite antennas so that “the drone, day and night, can cover all forest areas with thermal cameras and sensors,” said Emmanuel Angelakis, managing director of the company that operates the drone. Can scan.” and give live images and coordinates of where the fire occurs”.
The idea for the system came about in June 2022, when a wind-driven forest fire fell from a mountain range on the municipality of Constantelos. As they coordinated the response, officers realized they had a problem.
live image of fire
“We were following the fire,” Meyer said.
As the flames spread rapidly, tracking where water trucks were needed was a challenge.
“We didn’t see the fundamentals on the ground. We saw them late, because we weren’t right in front of them.”
This was followed by a comprehensive review of the emergency response.
“What we saw was missing was that we weren’t just chasing the fire, but being able to get a live image of the fire, where our assets were and where the threat was,” Constantelos said. He thought of the drone.
Fire departments already use drones when covering a small area during an active fire. The need was to see the fire when it started and stop it there.
Contact with the drone company led to the birth of a fire prevention program. In the year and a half that it’s been operational, it’s been given 12 early fire warnings, Constantellos said.
“We got a fire at 3:30 in the morning,” the mayor said. “When we sent Civil Protection, they didn’t even know the fire was there. We could see it on the drone.”
Then on Saturday from 5.30 am the fire broke out six times due to 270 lightning strikes. The drone spotted him immediately, Constantelos said Monday.
“We had amazing coordination, and in less than 40 minutes we had put out six fires in hard-to-reach places,” with live drone images broadcast on his cellphone.
less affluent areas cannot afford it
The drones have a range of 15 km and are equipped with loudspeakers and searchlights to warn people doing restricted outdoor work or scare off potential arsonists on days of high fire risk.
The municipality is also running a pilot program to prevent drowning, whereby drones can drop lifejackets to swimmers in distress.
The municipality pays €13,000-14,000 per month for 24/7 coverage. “For a municipality, that’s a viable number to have peace of mind from a fire,” Constantelos said.
The drone company’s Angelakis said the privately funded initiative by Kifissia residents was “the first time it took place on a voluntary basis, not by a state body”.
The nearby municipality of Kifissia, Dionysos, followed suit, with privately funded operations operating out of the town hall.
Residents of less affluent areas will be less able to afford private financing. But other municipal and regional officials are interested, said Constantelos, who noted that the system could be used to coordinate responses to other events such as floods, earthquakes or traffic accidents.
He said, “As we say in aviation, ‘a well-trained pilot is the best safety tool’.” “We convert this to civil defense and we say: ‘A well prepared city is a city’s best defense against crisis’”.