Fire Crescendo in Kresna
Kiril Kosturski is sorrowfully crying amidst a black and lifeless meadow near the Kresna Gorge in South-Western Bulgaria. His 15 bee families, 50 beehives, and his summer house are burnt to the ground. Completely burnt are also 20,000 decares of forest and land (almost 5,000 acres), 10 houses and countless animal and plant species – the outcome from a fierce forest fire that rampaged through the area in the last days of August 2017. Climate change is to blame, some believe. A suspect in arson has been arrested. Yet, rather than joining efforts with the public to address causes and improve capacity to prevent forest fires, authorities are waging a futile war against nature conservationists.
A week earlier Kosturski, 60, came to his house in the small village of Oshtava and mounted new windows. He was dreaming of his beloved daughter’s arrival from the USA within a week. They were to spend a couple of peaceful days together in the lovely nature of Kresna. Kosturski could not wait to play with his granddaughter and drinking a glass of home-made wine with his son-in-law on the the veranda.
In the afternoon, Kosturski left his instruments and headed home to the nearby city of Blagoevgrad. On the following day, neighbours called to say the mountain was burning. Kosturski rushed to Oshtava, but there was heavy traffic on the highway and he was forced to drive slowly. When he finally arrived, flames had already engulfed his house. The roof collapsed in front of his eyes. All trees in the yard were on fire. There was no trace of the beehives.
Kosturski stood stunned for a moment, then turned and walked away. He had worked for 35 years as a firefighter.
Inferno of fire
The forest fire was raging for five whole days. More than 50 firefighter trucks, two helicopters, hundreds of firefighters and volunteers – more than 600 people – participated in the mass effort to put out the fire. Despite their struggle, 10 houses were lost, nine of which were located in the small village of Oshtava and one in the nearby village of Old Kresna. Eight of the houses were weekend/vacation cottages, but two belonged to families who lived there year-round. Now they are suddenly homeless.
In his yard in Oshtava, Kosturski had a few aluminum sheets to make rooftops for his beehives. During the fire, the sheets melted. Today there is an aluminium “river” on top of the black land – there where he was dreaming of gathering his whole family together.
Down in Kresna people saw the sky turn black to the east on the first day of the fire. It was Thursday afternoon – the day of Kresna’s traditional weekly local market. Large globes of smoke were rising from the mountain ridge towards the sky. The air air felt suffocating, recalls a woman who sells clothes at the market. In the evening, people in Kresna could see a red aurora over the hills.
Now they are suddenly homeless
“It was terrible, it was awful. I once saw a piece of fire taken by the wind and carried some 300-400 meters away”, says Nikolay Georgiev, mayor of Kresna, who spent the entire five days on the mountain, helping to fight the fire.
On Sunday, the fire approached Vlahi – a mountain village some 10 kilometres away from Kresna. It looked like a black sunrise, local residents recall. Many of the residents of Vlahi are nature lovers and conservationists, attracted by the impressive historic architecture and unique natural environment, just outside the borders of the Pirin National Park. Their homes, educational and conservation facilities, built over more than a decade, were now threatened by the fire. So they stood up to it.
“Path had been cut through trees and plants by the volunteers in order to stop the spreading of the fire, but I could see the fire had jumped over and continued”, says Danita Zarichinova, environmentalist at Za Zemiata/Friends of the Earth – Bulgaria, who inspected the area after the fire.
Nature protection activists struggling to put the fire out encountered a surprisingly negative attitude by the representatives of the state. Dimitur Vassilev, an ecologist who established the School for Nature in Vlahi, described the first reaction of the local emergency services as inadequate.
“The police arrived first. They literally forced us to leave, pushing and shouting at me”, Vassilev recalls. “The policemen threatened us. They said that if we do not obey and leave immediately, they will arrest us and cuff us”, confirms also Elena Tsingarska who runs a sanctuary for wolves and bears in Vlahi. Tsingarska originally obeyed the order but half-way down from the village she persuaded the head of the firefighter brigade to let her go back. “If the fire came to the sanctuary, we either have to open the doors and let the animals run away – knowing that they will come back in few days – or put them under anaesthesia and carry them away from the village”, Tsingarska explained.
In Vlahi, flames reached just 50 meters away from the old school that hundreds of volunteers from all over the world had been restoring for over a decade. At the same time, volunteers arriving to fight the fire were not allowed to make their way to Vlahi and were stopped at a police gateway at the very beginning of the road to the town.
Mayor Georgiev confirms that volunteers were not allowed through to help. He says they were unprepared or untrained for the task. “We would only allow people who are well equipped to go help voluntarily. Yo cannot allow a person who came in flip-flops to go close to the fire”, Georgiev explained.
A team of firefighters with their truck were sent to the wolves and bears sanctuary and remained there the entire time, ready to protect the wild animals as were the forestry service teams, Tsingarska says gratefully.
But Kosturski, a former firefighter himself, thinks the fire brigade did nothing to save his house in Oshtrava. “They were staying with the trucks up there at the road. They did not come to the house to try to extinguish the fire”, he exclaims over his lost property.
The problem actually runs far deeper, as firefighting resources had been gradually depleted or destroyed during the last 20 years, Toma Belev said. Belev, who is a former director of Vitosha, the oldest nature park in the Balkans, thinks that no adequate tools are available to fight forest fires at present. “The existing firefighting systems ore old, forest roads that could allow the firefighting trucks to easily reach affected areas are ruined, and human force is insufficient!”, he explained. On top of all this, the available helicopters are not well equipped for firefighting, Belev said.
Eventually the fire was put out on the evening of Monday, 28 August, but only after pouring rain came, as if responding to the hopes and prayers and hopes of firefighters, environmentalists and locals alike.
Hope rises from the ashes
At least 20,000 decares (5,000 acres) of forest were destroyed. 13,000 decares (3,200 acres) of these were covered in conifers, and 97% of the territory is state-owned.
Kresna Gorge is home to 3,199 species of 355 animal families, representing 10.5% of the country’s biodiversity. Among them are the tortoise (Testudinidae) and the famous leopard snake (Zamenis situla). Wolves had been observed high up in the mountains. But after the fire, the hills are carbon-black throughout the mountainous region lying east of the Kresna gorge. There is no longer any song of bird or cricket in the dead forest. The silence is painful to the ears. It seems that no plant or animal has been left alive, and, yet, there is no count of the number of wild animals who may have died.
The toughest part of all is that the top layer of soil is burnt – that is the most valuable part of the ground, says Andrey Kovachev, biologist and head of the Balkani Wildlife Society. This means that the initial condition of the forest can hardly be restored. The South-Western Forestry Enterprise stated that “Afterwards a serious soil preparation is to be done and then there will be a “step-by-step” planting of local deciduous species – beech, oak, etc. – that are fire-resistant”. Its director Damyan Damyanov stated to Nova TV that the after-fire cleanup of the forest will take at least one year. The mayor of Kresna estimated that the cutting off the burnt trees alone will probably take up to three years.
The presence of too many pine forests at such a low altitude is a contributing fire risk, according to Vassilev, who has worked in nature conservation for 30 years. Pine trees and coniferous flora in general are not typical for such a low altitude; they grow naturally in places higher than 1,500 meters above sea level. Pine trees easily catch fire and burn. Fire quickly spreads through their needles, and their abundant resin also helps the wood burn fast, Vassilev explained.
“Pine trees should not be planted at such locations in Bulgaria”, agreed Zarichinova. Georgiev shares the conservationists opinion. He explained that planting the pine trees was a bad policy in the past. “We need oak trees here”, he concluded.
Human irresponsibility is another issue. Many throw away their cigarette butts in the open– and the dryness of the surrounding grass makes it easy to start a fire, Zarichinova says. “We can see how irresponsible people are when we look at how and where they throw away their garbage – it is all over”, she adds.
Firefighting resources also seem highly insufficient in the area. There is a forest fires early warning system in place, according to the state-owned South-Western Forestry Enterprise (SWFE). Two years ago SWFE built nine towers for forest fire prevention and early warning. The observation towers are located in the most fire-hazardous areas of the Blagoevgrad region with prevailing coniferous trees. Five of them are located in the Mesta river valley in the villages of Satovcha, Eleshnitsa, Gotse Delchev, Garmen and Mesta, and four are located in the state forestry areas of Blagoevgrad, Sandanski, Katuntsi and Kresna in the valley of the Struma River.
There is no longer any song of bird or cricket in the dead forest
SWFE also says it has 24 fire-extinguishing vehicles, 18 of which are suited for hard terrain and extremely efficient for working in hard-to-reach forest areas, two new bulldozers and 13 combined loaders that can also be used for fire extinguishing. Still that was not enough to quickly put out the fire.
There are a lot of opportunities for protecting the forests from fire by means of the RRD programme, Toma Belev explains. Besides building early warning systems, it is also possible to buy firefighting equipment for helicopters to specifically deal with forest fires.
An assistance payment of 325 Bulgarian levs (162.50 euros) will be paid to each household that lost their house to the fire, the mayor of Kresna announced. His party, the Bulgarian Socialist Party, also promised to provide 10,000 levs for the two families who lost their homes, he announced. A special bank account was created by the municipality to collect donations for these families as well, and experts will discuss ways to provide wood for them, so that they can build new homes.
“We are going to start an initiative called “Green Kresna” – letting people plant a tree or a few trees”, the mayor announced. Educational campaigns may also be a part of it.
Still there is no clear idea of any reforestation of the land that that was burnt. “We have to wait for the estimations of the losses”, Elitsa Malamova, the ecologist of the municipality, said. “We are going to help the local people restore the grazing fields, that is for the farmers who raise animals. These people need these grazing areas; their living depends on this. We are now thinking of how to help them”. The municipality is also preparing an application for funding though the “Rural Regions Development” Programme funded by the EU for an early warning system for forest fires and recovering the high-mountainous water reservoirs in the region.
The state-owned South-Western Forestry Enterprise declared it will start reforestation once the terrain of the fire is cleaned up. The funding will be provided through the for-profit activities of the enterprise.
Doubts and crossfire
“I’ve heard old people saying that a fire in the forest can start without any human intervention, for instance due to a piece of glass having an optical effect of a lens”, said a firefighter from the Sofia region, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “However in my whole practice I’ve never evidenced such a case in real life”, he concluded.
Two days after the fire was extinguished, a 30-year-old man from Simitli was accused of setting the fire. The man, who is a shepherd, was said to have thrown away his cigarette butt without extinguishing it. Kostadin Mitev was employed by the “Wild Flora and Fauna Fund” – a conservation NGO operating in Vlahi and was caring of a herd of rare short-haired Rhodope bovine.
Most of the environmentalists and the local people in Kresna and the mayor are sceptical about Mitev’s guilt. Kosturski is convinced the fire is related to the decade-long controversy over a motorway construction near Kresna.
Yet, two days after the fire was extinguished, the minister of interior, Valentin Radev, who was coordinator of the disaster-relief action centre in the village of Old Kresna, surprisingly accused environmentalists of not joining the effort against the fire in Kresna. The statement caused outrage, and a petition circulated online requesting an apology and retraction.
In spite of the minister’s statement, most environmentalists are grateful to the firefighters and believe they did superhuman things to stop the fire. Elena Tsingarska and Andrey Kovachev say the firefighters were selfless and did an extraordinary job. The Kresna mayor is impressed, too.
“There are a lot of benefits that can be derived out of a fire like this one”, Vassilev commented. One is the opportunity to syphon resources out of the country’s Disasters and Accidents Fund, Vassilev points out. Another is the huge amount of wood that is now available. Trees that are burned on the outside remain unaffected internally and would now be cut down, sliced and sold as timber, he explained. Others believe the fire is not intentional, but a result of human negligence. “The start of the fire is a result of simple negligence. It’s a matter of our education at home while we were kids; it’s a matter of moral”, says the biologist Kovatchev. “I can see no signs of intention”, he adds. “I hope it is just an accident, I don’t want to believe it may be intentional”, says Zarichinova.
Bad climate for Kresna
No matter what people believe or say, the death spiral of climate change has started and is now going faster and faster in the Kresna gorge. The weather is already hot and dry, and biologists say it is more similar to the climate of Northern Greece than to the typical Bulgarian climate. The fire made things worse. The soil layer is diminished and cannot provide ground for restoration of the forest in it’s previous condition – the land will be deserted, stony, sandy, Kovatchev warns. For several years only grass and small bushes will be able to grow. Although there are trees that survived, these are mainly oak and beech – slow-growing species. It will take many years for them to spread.
The death spiral of climate change has started
As there is little flora around, the burnt top layer of ground can no longer provide it’s water-retention functions. And in the case of heavy rain or rapid melting of snow, quick erosion and sudden floods are highly possible for the villages located below.
“We are going to have a hard, really hard winter”, the Kresna’s mayor, Georgiev, admits. The local climate is changing and most of the local people are indeed feeling it. They observe a rapid transformation of local weather patterns. The weather is extremely hot and dry, says the woman who sells clothes at the Thursday market in Kresna. “We have not seen a single drop of rain since June”, she adds. Other local people also recall the last rain came down in the middle of June.
It’s getting hotter and hotter every other year, other locals say. “Some 15 years ago, the yards in our region were used to grow peach trees, apricot trees, apple trees”, says Lyubka Kovacheva, a teacher from the local school. “Today almost nobody has orchard with these kinds of trees; instead people are growing olive trees, peanuts, even kiwi.” She opens her smartphone and shows a picture of her own kiwi plant. A few years ago growing a kiwi in Bulgaria would have been considered an experiment. “There is a cast iron factory close to the town. Now they have a lot of olive trees, almost an olive forest”, Kovacheva adds. For those now growing fig trees, there is even a pavilion outside of Kresna where local people can sell their fig fruits to wholesale companies. “Some families make their living out of this”, the teacher says.
Local farmers who grow sheep say there is almost no grazing for their animals in the summer. The grass is green and juicy until May only – then all the flora goes dry, they complain. Some of them are trying to take their herds up in the higher parts of the mountain. But this creates a conflict, because the local landowners get angry and try to drive away the herds.
The local rivers are going dry too. “Lots of rivers are dried up – rivers that have never before been dry”, Andrey Kovachev says. There is almost no water in the small villages around Kresna, according to Malamova. Decades ago the Agricultural Cooperatives were building and managing water reservoirs that were used for farming but could also be used for providing water in case of a forest fire; today these reservoirs are ruined, she explains. More than half of the local irrigation wells had gone dry, she also notes.
Besides the dry and hot summer periods, there are more weather extremes as well. Last winter, the region saw temperatures of -18 to -20°C for several days in a row. Such lows are very rare for this region and had never lasted that long, the municipality ecologist explains.
The current climate is more typical for Northern Greece than for Bulgaria, Kovatchev confirms. “The change is drastic. We see it. We accept it, but we have to be aware that it is ongoing and it is changing our lives”, Kovachev concluded.