Life in a Dol house
2017 - Week 30

🔥 Fire! Fire!🔥 🚒 🚒

Sundays are quiet days, especially during the heat of the summer. 

I feel morally obliged to conform to the local custom of the Biblical "day of rest". 

There is of course the daily routine; making sure the felines are fed and watered, irrigating all the plants, shrubs and trees which need it (which is most of them!), checking and responding to emails, a look at the newspapers on-line, listen to the BBC radio, etc. 

My temporary study is the dining room table, which has a view looking north, over the village of Dol to the Island of Brać, some 13 kilometers away. It was while I was sitting at the computer that I could smell smoke. 

Looking up, there was a line across the Mediterranean blue sky, dusky brown below, blue above and the outline of Brać had disappeared into the murky haze. Going outside, the smell of smoke was strong and flecks of ash were falling onto the washing. 

Time to activate my fire plan....

I completed a very basic SWOT analysis when I first moved into my Dol house, thinking about all the possibles and probables, one of threats being fire. 

It could have been caused by the then appalling state of the house wiring and electrics - now completely overhauled and rewired to the latest standards - but also, my buildings are less than 50 meters from the edge of the Maquis and less than 100 metres from the proper pine forest, on the hills to the south.

Combine that with only one of the three roofs having been renovated, means that there is the potential for my home to be seriously affected by its proximity to a fire on the hillside behind. 

Thinking of the risks, I developed a plan. A few easy steps, like laying out hose pipes on either side of the buildings. Granted they are domestic small diameter hose, but with over 7 BAR of water pressure, a jet can go a long way. 

Then bringing the ladder out of the store, to get easy access to the roof, get together some tools and moving flammables away from the buildings. 

Having some Nomex clothing ready (I used to fly in Nomex all the time for safety), and then an evacuation plan, get the car out and parked safely close by, fill a "Grab Bag" and decided what you are going to take, that you can take with you, if you have to evacuate.

It has been proven time and time again, that simply by having a plan, developing it, writing it down and following it makes the difference between survival and....... not!

So with stage 1 of my plan activated, I came back to the computer. I fired off a warning email to friends and neighbours, suggesting they dust off their plans too. 

I learned later than no one else has one! Looking at the European active fires website which uses data from the Copernicus earth observing satellites, I could see the largest fire was actually on the mainland near to Perković, some 50 kilometers distant.

It was being fanned by a very strong Bura wind from the north. That we were receiving ash fallout 50 km down wind gives an idea of the size and intensity of the blaze.

On Monday morning, a Canadair water bomber flew over the house, together with an Air Tractor, heading east. A fire had broken out on the island, some 25 km east in Bogomolje.

Fire appliances from three of the Island's volunteer fire and rescue services were dispatched to the scene. 

Called "Vatrogasci" in Croatian, each of the four island municipalities maintains a station with full time officers/managers and a core of year round volunteers who become permanent staff during the fire season. The Croatian national fire portal shows that the fire risk on the island is vrlo velica - "Extreme". 

Viewing the EU ECHO website shows the extent of the fire risk and the actual fires in progress on Monday, around the Adriatic.

On monday evening a thick band of smoke created an early and very red sunset.
As the Mediterranean heats up, so the risk of forest fire increases. 

Fifty or more years ago, the hillside to the south of my home was terraced, with many intertwining paths. Each terrace was cultivated with olives. But as the younger people moved to the towns and into the service economy, they no longer wanted the land and slowly nature has been taking back possession. 

The next series of photographs have all been taken within 100 meters radius of my home.

Now there are dead, fallen trees everywhere. Most of the paths are unusable and there is a dense underbrush.

The paths which are open are covered in dust-dry vegetation, just waiting for a falling ember to ignite them.

With strong winds, a small fire quickly becomes a major conflagration. A major fire then creates its own weather and wind.

There is no moisture in the soil and being the Mediterranean, the plants and trees are adapted to the heat, so their leaves have a waxy surface and contain large quantities of oil, which vaporises in the heat and further fuels a fire.

I have seen at first hand the devastating consequences of fire in California, where there are significant numbers of aircraft and helicopters available to be called to contain and extinguish fires. 

In Los Angeles, both the City and the County fire services maintain fleets of their own aircraft and hire in large air tankers for the main fire season.

They sit waiting for a call, and when it comes, the "air cavalry" take off, to support dozens of fire fighters on the ground, to prevent a small fire becoming a big one.

Red Flag Public Warnings are issued for the most extreme days, and when a red flag day is declared, the number of personnel and resources on standby doubles. 

This week it was announced that on Monday, every fire fighter in Split-Dalmatia was engaged fighting forest fires, and support was brought in from 400 kilometers away in Zagreb. Several thousand civilian volunteers also helped to bring the fires under control.

There have been some serious forest fires on the island and the remains of burnt tree stumps dot the landscape on the old road between Stari Grad and Grad Hvar, once you pass Brusje.

This photo is used on the ECHO website and shows the hillside above Stari Grad ablaze some years back.

So it is possible, especially during the extreme heat and low humidity we have at the moment, for another fire to start at any time. All it needs are a few burning embers to blow on the wind from the mainland to Brać, ignite a fire in the woodlands there and then blow from Brać to Hvar. 

When you look at the forestation around Dol, it is difficult to believe that these heavily wooded slopes are terraced underneath and it is only in the last 40 or so years that the Maquis has reclaimed them from cultivation, followed by the pine trees.

My home is in the group of houses, centre left. 

Most homes in the village are within the woodland-urban interface, an area known to be especially dangerous. ​ It must be remembered that the landscape of the Mediterranean has been shaped by fire over the millennia. Sometimes fires are accidental, a controlled burn that gets out of control, sometimes its deliberate, but a major cause of forest fires is dry lightning.

Experience in other countries shows that where a forest is managed, where under brush controlled and cleared, paths and tracks maintained, then the risk of a major fire reduces. 

The local fire chief told me this week that poor or no vehicle access, limited water supplies, no water hydrant in the village and the clogging of the forest floor with an abundant supply of dry fuel are his major concerns.

A little up the hillside from my home are the remains of a palace reputed to be that of Queen Teuta, the 1st century BC queen of Illyria. 

Completely invisible, until you get into the forest and find that the immense stone wall and floor flags have prevented much vegetation taking root.

With a view like this from the palace, who could fail to understand her reason for building here? 

Note: There were no red tile roofs to intrude into your line of sight 21 centuries ago!

The walls of the terraces are mainly intact. 

These have been built over the 24 centuries since the Greeks first populated the island, subjugated the indigenous inhabitants and set out a geometric system of land usage, marked by walls, called Chora. As land was converted to agriculture, the people piled stones dug from the soils into walls. In many places, the walls are wide and form the backbone of paths between the terraces and fields.

In places these walls are wide enough and strong enough to take a 4x4. 

Terraces hold back soil on the slopes, preventing run-off erosion and retaining moisture from the meager summer rains. 

In just a few places, olives are still in evidence, but mostly it is just the typical trees of the Mediterranean biome; Aleppo and Stone pines, Holm and Kermes oaks, columnar Cyprus and a lower growing layer of drought tolerant shrubs, plants like the Mastic and Strawberry tree, Turpentine bush and tree heather.

Planning requires an understanding of the risk before you can mitigate it. 

There is also the question of how far do you go? 

I have a large patio, with a double layer wooden roof. With clay tiles on the outer surface, it is doubtful that embers could penetrate between the tiles. But my old roofs are different. 

In places I can get my hand between the tiles because the rafters are so uneven. 

Nevertheless, as the patio is surrounded by a very old and substantial grape vine, with long hanging branches, as the leaves start to die, there is a risk that with enough latent heat, they would easily catch fire. However, they provide much needed shade from the sun and I would not want to cut them back.

If there is a forest fire, there might not be time to cut them back, but that is a risk I am willing to take. The greater problem is that burning embers lodge in the metal rainfall gutters and burn, setting fire to the roof timbers - something my hose pipes can deal with.

By the weekend, all but one of the fires on the mainland in Croatia are extinguished but the 2017 fire season is far from over.

There is a 50% chance of storms on Tuesday and Wednesday this week, but they might be like the one this morning, which was "dry". 

The Virga rain can be seen falling as grey sheets, but it evaporated before it reached the ground. There were about half a dozen flashes of Dry Lightning.

With no sign of any rainfall, let alone any significant rainfall, the risk of fire will remain at 'extreme' for the next two months. My hose pipes are still in place!