Several countries are battling dozens of wildfires that are burning throughout the region.
By Svetla Dimitrova for Southeast European Times in Sofia -- 05/09/12
A villager tries to extinguish flames from a fire in Memaliaj, near the city of Tepelene in southern Albania. [Reuters]
A series of wildfires in Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia and Bulgaria are straining the resources of firefighters and military in the region, as they battle to contain the blazes despite extreme temperatures, winds and dry conditions.
Although the temperatures have dropped in recent days, a number of blazes are still burning, many of them blamed on human negligence.
"It can't be happening just by accident because there are so many fires in one time in such a big area," Volimir Milosevic, head of a firefighting brigade in Croatia, told the BBC. "We aren't being as effective as could be in putting them out."
Thousands of hectares of land have been scorched by the blazes, including the Tara mountains in Serbia, as temperatures have reached 40 degrees Celsius at times. Emergency workers and the military worked together to contain the blazes.
Serbia Prime Minister Ivica Dacic surveyed some of the efforts, and told reporters that the situation "is still very difficult."
In Bulgaria, one of the most difficult to extinguish lately was the wildfire that started in the second half of August near the Rila Monastery, a UNESCO site and one of the Balkan nation's ancient and most important cultural monuments.
Bulgarian officials said nearly 300 fires have been reported in that country alone, providing a challenge to both emergency workers and volunteers.
Bulgaria relies predominantly on its professional staff to deal with fires and other emergency situations. According to interior ministry data, there are a total of 7,530 people employed in the sector across the country, including 1,065 in Sofia.
Lyubomir Elenkov, head of the national trade union of firefighters, said that the service is understaffed and needs an extra 3,000 people.
Unlike other European countries, Bulgaria has a very small number of voluntary firefighters, who accounted for less than 2 percent in 2010, according to a report by the Geneva-based International Association for the Study of Insurance Economics.
Much more serious than the staff issue is the problem with the country's antiquated firefighting equipment and vehicles. The sector does not have a single specialised aircraft, so it had to rely on two military helicopters in the battle against wildfires in inaccessible mountain areas throughout the summer.
"Eighty-five percent of the equipment we have is between 30 and 50 years old," Elenkov told SETimes on Monday (September 3rd).
Bulgarian Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov said last week that Sofia cannot afford to purchase the needed equipment.
"We are currently leading negotiations with the European Commission (EC) for EU funding for the purchase of more equipment," he told reporters in the southwestern town of Blagoevgrad on August 28th. "It is known that the fire-extinguishing equipment in the country is among the oldest – there are vehicles older than 50 years. The interior ministry has no funds to replace the equipment and for this reason we rely on EU funding."
He also noted that Bulgaria has already used EU aid to buy 42 new firefighting vehicles, which will be distributed among services in the country on September 14th.
The ministry's press office told SETimes that the new vehicles will go to the Balkan country's seven biggest districts, including Sofia.
"Any new car is welcome, but those 42 account for just 5 percent of our needs," Elenkov commented. "You decide if it will make our work easier."
Last week, the southern city of Smolyan and four neighbouring towns received one new off-road fire-fighting vehicle each.