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Woodcutters a vital part of recovery September 2, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Greece News.

Bare mountain slopes blackened by fire in Parnitha need to be protected as vital topsoil risks being washed away in the first rains

greece_in_fires.jpg  In August, after massive fires on Mount Parnitha, woodcutters felled blackened stumps to clear the land and build dams to contain soil. These flood prevention dams will prove invaluable in the first rains, allowing seeds to germinate and vegetation to re-emerge, eventually. 

The first weekend in August, up above the empty city of Athens on Mount Parnitha, an army of about 220 woodcutters spread out over the slopes scorched in this summer’s earlier forest fires. Aside from a few day-trippers heading for the casino higher up, the few firefighters who have remained on watch were the only other people around.

On the footpaths through what was once lush forest, the landscape is blackened. Despite a ban on access, there is nothing to stop anyone from venturing out here but there is little to attract them now.

The woodcutters came to Athens from northern and central Greece just a few days after the fires were extinguished and went to work. Several are from Halkidiki and Achilaos, near Volos. Others are from Livadi, Elassona. The work is distributed through local cooperatives and the Forestry Service which sets the tasks to be carried out and recruits the workers. Some of them took part in the erosion control projects after the fires on Mount Pendeli in 1995 and 1998, on the island of Samos in 2000, in Aigion in 2001 and elsewhere.

They work before dawn to avoid as much of the heat of the day as they can, but don’t finish until late afternoon. The volume of work depends on the extent of the destruction.

“We build flood-prevention dams wherever we have access. In this case, on Parnitha, that is what we are doing nearly everywhere on the mountain, since there are not many steep slopes. There is a lot of work but most of it is relatively easy,” said Ilias Kaprinis. “The vegetation is sparse and the trees not very tall. It is easy to maneuver when cutting them down. Otherwise, there is the danger of getting hit by a falling tree.”

“Felling trees is the main part of our work, because it is also the most dangerous,” said Giorgos Varvarezos, head of the Elassona cooperative. “You have to learn how to make the right cuts and to cut guidelines within the trunk so that the tree will fall where you want it to, otherwise… We all have some bad memories.”

As they saw at the blackened stumps, they are covered in soot. Most of them can’t stand wearing masks. “We know it’s not good for us, but when the sun is high in the sky it’s unbearable,” they said.

After the timber is cut and branches lopped off, the trunks are dragged away by mule to where the dams are to be built across slopes, according to the lay of the land. Every dam consists of several logs and supports placed vertically to withstand its own weight. The only material used is the wood from the burnt forest, nothing else. The only extra material they need is fuel and oil for the saws and fodder for the mules. Looking up from the bottom of the mountain, the dams look like a staircase going up the slope.

The work is extremely vital to the future of the mountain. Flood-prevention dams will halt the flow of rainwater which would otherwise find nothing to prevent it from washing away all the topsoil now that the vegetation has been destroyed. They will contain the soil, the seeds and the burnt vegetation which will be able to decompose, and prevent erosion. At the same time, as the trunks used to make the dams will decompose faster as they are in direct contact with the soil, they will enrich it with valuable organic matter, allowing seeds to propagate and if all goes well, create a new forest.

“That’s how the Pendeli forest began to grow again after the 1995 destruction, until it was burnt again and was completely destroyed. If it goes up in flames again, forget it, it’s lost,” said Nikos Batzoyiannis sadly, little knowing that his words were to prove prophetic, as Pendeli caught fire again on August 16, a foretaste of the terrible destruction that was to follow in the rest of the country.

“We expect to work together with timber merchants, but the way forests are going up in smoke one after the other, where are we expected to find timber?”

Most of the woodcutters have followed in their fathers’ footsteps. Over time, however, their working methods have changed. Chainsaws replaced axes back in the 1960s and so fewer hands are needed. At the same time, imports from Scandinavia and other countries have increased and synthetic materials have also replaced expensive timber.

The deadline for repairing the slopes of Parnitha was the end of September, before the first autumn rains. Now that Parnitha is just one of hundreds of slopes that need protection, they will have their work cut out for them.

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