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Europe

EU Considers Smothering Fires in Paperwork

Even as firefighters in southern Europe continue to battle devastating forest fires, the EU Commission is working on plans for a coordinated fire department. It's a plan national fire departments oppose.

A firefighter and volunteers try to extinguish a forest fire

A nearly annual occurance: Firefighters work to extinguish unA nearly annual occurrence: Firefighters work to extinguish uncontrollable firescontrollable fires

Europe has again been hit by a fire crisis: Spain, Italy, Macedonia and Greece. Four lives have been claimed and over 50,000 hectares (123,550 acres) of forest and more than 100 houses have already burnt down this year.

"Absolutely everything has burnt down, I have never seen anything like this," said Andreas Hähnel, a fireman from the eastern German state of Brandenburg who volunteered to work with 40 others firefighters in an international fire brigade.

It's the fifth time that Hähnel has gone abroad to battle fires and he said he's never seen blazes as serious as the ones he's fighting at the moment in northern Greece. The fires are so intense they've overwhelmed Greece's resources, he said.

"There is a lack of water and tools, but especially coordination," said Hähnel. "It's chaotic. There is only one fire department control station in Athens in charge of the entire coordination."

A coordinated fire department

A Red Cross worker stands in a burnt area of forest

Could Brussels do a better job at organizing firefighting efforts

To ease organization, officials in Brussels have come up with a way to put the fires out quickly by adding paper to them.

"Extinguishing all the fires can only be accomplished with the help of European partners," said EU Environment Commissar Stavros Dimas, whose department is responsible for natural disasters. "It is time to improve the mechanism, so we can be more efficient in the future."

The Greek commissioner added that a centrally operated European fire department could provide firefighting teams and planes to the entire bloc, wherever the wild fires occur.

Monetary burden for all EU states

Dimas revived the idea from his former French colleague Michel Barnier, who suggested an EU fire department for forest fires in 2006. The current proposal calls for the planned department's money to come from a new EU fund, Dimas said.

A plane drops water to help extinguish a forest fire

Firefighting airplanes are constantly in operation, but many more are needed.

While the commissioner's idea met with the support of French President Nicholas Sarkozy and Greeek Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis, it didn't receive overwhelming support from the rest of the EU.

Countries that have not been hit by forest fires said they saw the idea as an attempt to put an unnecessary monetary burden on the whole community and some don't see the point of keeping a intervention force on stand-by all year.

"We don't think it makes sense to have an established unit ready throughout the summer, and to spend much money on it," said Ralf Ackerman, vice president of the World Fire Assembly CTIF. "The problem is the absence of an overall, uniform system of fire departments."

According to the CTIF, Greece has more that 34 local volunteer fire departments and 17,000 professional firefighters, while Germany has about a million active members on their voluntary fire department. In Germany, almost every village has its own department.

Before large-scale operations can start in Greece, authorities have to go through a long process of notifying individual departments, Ackermann said.

"The problem would, of course, be similar with a Euro-fire department as well," he added.

Databank for firefighting airplanes

Cars driving near a damaged area after a forest fire

European fires have destroyed some settled areas

So far, Greece, Cyprus, Italy, Bulgaria and Macedonia have asked for help from the EU. The requests are being coordinated through the Brussels-based European Monitoring Information Center (MIC) which was founded in after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

The MIC is supposed to help in case of catastrophes when bureaucratic hurdles need to be minimized. If, for example, a country needs firefighting airplanes, the databank can find where they are available -- if they have been registered with the MIC.

While admitting that there are drawbacks to the current system, Ackermann said it has "been working quite well, all in all."

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