5 Major Croatian Forest Fires: How They Started, How to Avoid

Paul Bradbury

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The latest large forest fire in Croatia, on Ciovo - photo by Burak Canboy

August 8, 2023 – Croatian forest fires are sadly a fixture of the summer tourist season. A look at some of the worst over the years – and how to avoid them.

The scenes from Rhodes in Greece and, closer to home, Ciovo a few weeks ago, are heartbreaking, with hundreds of hectares of land burned to a cinder. Croatian Forests has an informational campaign this summer, which we are happy to promote, called Recklessness is the First Spark. More detail on that below, but I thought it would be informative to look at five of the worst Croatian forest fires over the years, to understand the scale of the devastation, and then some simple steps on how the majority could be avoided. Croatian Forests have kindly provided me with the following info on 5 of the worst Croatian forest fires in recent times.

Location and time: Grebaštica, 13.7.2023.

While the 2023 season started with indifferent weather and no major fires, that all changed in mid-July with a reminder how quickly, and with what devastation a fire can occur. Coupled with strong winds, for which Dalmatia is famous, what starts as a small spark can quickly escalate.

It did not take long for some 600 hectares of land to be burned near Grebaštica, close to Šibenik. And while there were no victims, four firefighters were injured, battling the blaze through the night, and there was damage to houses and cars, in addition to the effect on nature – grass, low vegetation, maquis and pine forest. The danger was so serious, that the Minister of the Interior, Davor Bozinovic, rushed to the scene to oversee operations.

To give an idea of the scale of the emergency response, the fire was eventually extinguished thanks to the heroic efforts of no less than 155 firefighters, whose technical support included 57 vehicles, 3 Canadairs, and 4 air tractors.

The cause of the fire is yet to be determined.

Location and time: Vodice, July 13, 2022.

The Dalmatian coast and hinterland have been particularly susceptible to forest fires in recent years, and the biggest fire of 2022 broke out not too far from Grebaštica, above Šibenik . Again, strong winds hampered the rescue effort and allowed the fire to spread quickly.

The initial fire broke out in the hinterland of Vodice, around Mrdakovica, which spread to the area of the city of Šibenik, towards the settlements of Zaton and Raslina. At the peak of the tourist season, traffic was obviously affected, and some roads closed.

While there were no human victims, the size of the area affected was immense – some 3,300 hectares in total, and in addition to lost vegetation, olive groves and vineyards, some 14 houses and 7 farm buildings were completely burned, while 6 family houses were partially burned. Other material losses included 6 boars, 3 cars and a machine excavator.

The emergency response was huge. In all, there were 350 firefighters from several counties, who were assisted by the army, police and civil protection, with the air force also providing help.

The suspected cause of the fire was arson, as several fires began at the same time.

Location and time: Seget Gornji, August 2, 2021.

Dalmatia was once again the victim of the largest fire in 2021, which broke out in Seget Gornji, not far from Split. Although there was no danger to people or property, some 1,600 hectares were lost – mostly olive groves, low vegetation and pine forest.

As is often the case, strong winds enabled the fire to spread quickly, and the very dry vegetation allowed the fire to escalate. The official cause of the fire was the sparking of transmission lines caused by a short circuit resulting from construction works.

To give an idea of how many resources are needed to extinguish a fire of this magnitude, it required 194 firefighters with 49 vehicles, 25 soldiers, 3 Canadairs, four air tractors and a helicopter. The terrain was hard to access, making the task all the more difficult. In total, more than 2,000 tons of water were dropped on the fire, in addition to several tons of foam.

Location and time: Tugare, July 17, 2017. (the biggest fire, known as the fire near Split)

If ever a Croatian forest fire made international headlines, it was surely this one, which was very close to Split. Once again in peak season, the fire threatened the gates of Split itself, with anxious tourists unsure whether or not to cancel their holidays. Never in my 20 years here did a fire look so threatening, and the photos of huge fires close to residential areas were truly frightening.

The fire broke out near Tugare and, carried by the storm, reached the first houses in Srinjini, and then towards Donji and Gornji Sitni, and further towards Žrnovnica, Podstrana, Kamen and Kila, then towards Kućine and Mravinc, only a hundred meters from the expressway Solin-Klis. At one point, the fire came close to the garbage dump in Karepovac, and then to Dračevac, Mejaši and Kila. There were 380 firefighters with 120 vehicles on the ground, and numerous fire brigades from all over Croatia came to help. A total of 438 members of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Croatia were engaged at the fire sites. Both the University of Split and the Student Center joined in helping the fire brigade.

In total, a staggering 4,500 hectares were lost, and to give an idea of the level of international interest, viewing of our coverage of this fire exceeded that of Croatia in the World Cup Final the following year.

Some 4,500 hectares were lost to a very avoidable reason – an ember or open flame. A little recklessness can have tragic consequences. There were no human victims, but ten buildings, agricultural lands and crops disappeared in the flames, the habitats of birds, reptiles, small animals, and pine forests were destroyed. About 80 people received help for excessive smoke inhalation or minor burns.

Location and time: Kornati, August 30, 2007.

The most famous, controversial and deadly Croatian forest fire occurred 16 years ago, a fire still surrounded by some mystery, and a fire that evokes plenty of emotion even today. In total, 12 firefighters lost their lives, one was seriously injured, and the secretary of the Vodice Fire Brigade was so affected by the tragedy, that he committed suicide.

The firefighters who went to put out that fire could not even imagine what would happen to them because they went to put out the fire in an area where only bare stone and some low vegetation prevailed. There were no houses, no settlements, so the fire was not seen as a threat. According to the testimony of surviving firefighter Frano Lučić, upon arrival on the island, the first group of six firefighters disembarked, while the others moved on with the helicopter. After that, the remaining seventeen firefighters disembarked from the helicopter, and after about 15 minutes of walking, they reached a part that was open on the south side, and there the fire and smoke started suddenly, at such a speed that they were unable to escape, although they tried to run.

Copyright Romulic and Stojcic

The total burned surface has never been quantified, and the cause of the fire has been disputed for years. The tragedy has been commemorated with some giant stone crosses which have been laid at the site of the fire to remember the firefighters who died. They make a striking impression from the air, surrounded by the barren terrain around them.

Recklessness is the First Spark – Common Fire Causes

People tend to relax on holiday, and the most common causes of forest fires and due to recklessness and are easily preventable. The top three reasons are (each include by a short promotional video from the campaign, which you can see below):

1. Discarded cigarette butt

Short hiking trips to forested hills and mountains are one of the favorite activities of Croatian citizens and tourists. Therefore, it is not unusual for them to leave waste, including cigarettes, behind. One should never throw cigarette butts into nature. Aside from the pollution which is a good enough reason on its own, they can start a fire that will easily spread to vegetation, tall grass and forest.

2. Unextinguished flame

Many people like to use the summer months for camping or outdoor grilling. Unaware of the danger, a smouldering flame can spread in an instant and turn into a large, devastating fire. Equally dangerous are matches that are thrown on the ground unextinguished and hot.

3. Glass

As children, almost all of us tried to set a piece of paper on fire using the sun’s rays and a magnifier, but many don’t know that one can achieve the same effect with ordinary glass. A glass bottle left in nature is not harmless at all and can be another wildfire trigger.

What to Do If You See a Fire?

Since there is a strict ban on lighting fires in open spaces in the summer, if you notice any smoke, call 193 or 112. Your call can prevent a devastating fire. When they see a fire, many people assume that someone else has already called the emergency services, but this is often not the case.

Find out more about the fire season and procedures in nature on the campaign website. Prevent forest fire before it starts!

This article was produced in paid partnership with Croatian Forests.


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