Vitosha ablaze: fanning the flames of conspiracy

Vitosha on fire

Heritage ablaze – who cares? Photo: BTA

Sofia’s iconic mountain

When I wrote about Vitosha mountain – a precious Bulgarian icon –  last Sunday, I didn’t know how tragically appropriate the caption “Vitosha under threat” actually was; a hot issue had literally become a burning disaster at the precise time I was drafting the post.

Every day since then, I have been tempted to write about the wildfire that broke out in a remote and highly inaccessible area of the mountain. Each day, I have waited, so that I could include at least some positive news that the fire had been successfully extinguished. However…

Why should I care?

Coming from a minor volcanic area (Wales) myself, I am in awe of the fact that this capital city of Sofia sits at the foot of an extinct volcano of such dramatic and beautiful proportions. I find the views of Vitosha awesome from the centre of the city; I respect the mountain for what it is –  a living, breathing lung and recuperative powerhouse for our otherwise diminished life-forces.

But, for the moment, enough of that! Tonight marks Day 7+ of a tragic wildfire. According to the latest daily reports, the fire is now contained, and small hot-spots are being tackled. Which means that it’s still not completely over.

What happened?

An area of mountainous forest in the Bistritsa Branishte area of Vitosha Mountain ignited, somehow. The cause remains unknown, but there was immediate speculation by a government minister that it was down to a “tourist error”. This was promptly contradicted by a firefighting official, who pointed out that the affected area was so remote and inaccessible that such an “error” was highly unlikely. He also discounted the possibility of a lightning strike. The current hot weather is, also, unlikely to be the cause, it seems.

How big a fire?

Initial reports suggested the fire had overwhelmed an area of up to 40 or 50 decares (approx. 10-12 acres). As the days unfolded, these estimates (direct from officials, or reported as fact by various media) differed wildly. In one single news story, a report stated that the fire had spread over 150 decares, while in the same article it quoted a government minister who maintained it was confined to 50 (= 12 acres+/-).

By tonight, seven days on, it seems to be generally accepted that the fire has engulfed some 200 decares of a legally protected environment. Hold on, I’ve just seen a figure of 250 (=61 acres +/-) or an increase of 25% in area!

Who did what?

Two Bulgarian firefighting helicopters were initially / eventually deployed to dump water, joined later by a third, with a fourth to provide thermal imaging information. The only feasible way to begin to tackle the blaze was from the air, while land vehicles and firefighters attempted to get into the area. Volunteers were called for, and (heroically, fair play to all) rapidly responded. Throughout the week, it’s been consistently reported that about 300-350 personnel, professional and public, have been contributing to fighting the fire. According to the Interior Minister at one point, 490 people, including 135 volunteers, were involved at some point (oh? – thanks, you volunteers).

Self-help

Bulgaria appealed for international help, but…

On day 3, it was announced that Israel had offered the services of two specialised aircraft (why? –they were grateful for Bulgarian assistance in their recent Haifa woodland outbreak, it seems). The planes could have been operational over the site at first light on Day 4. However, local reports first said that the offer had been accepted, only for this to be overturned later the same day – no, they were not required (no reason given at the time, of course). Similar offers came from Macedonia and Romania. Not required, it seems. Thanks, but no thanks, in effect.

Meantime, several volunteers were commenting online or via official sources that the initial response to the fire had been totally inadequate; one spoke of waiting for 6 hours before any professional fighters or equipment materialised on the first day. Others complained about a complete lack of organisation even after they arrived. All of which was, of course, categorically denied by “official sources” and sundry ministers – “no chaos”, I saw quoted by one such source.

On day 6, I read for the first time the apparent reason for rejecting Israeli help; their planes were not suitable for such “rugged terrain”, according to PM Boyko Borisov. Well, I’m sure he knows best – after all, is he not an ex-firefighter himself, and now “the boss of everything”, while not engrossed in cutting ribbons? I still find it difficult to understand how dumping water from the air by specialised planes is precluded by “rugged” terrain! As for what happened to those other countries’ offers, I don’t know. (The ‘Macedonists’ must be really p****ed off: suprematist opportunity denied.)

Seriously, it’s really hard to understand why such offers were not taken up – what was at play here? National pride in our firefighters? Payment to other countries, despite the apparently healthy Bulgarian budget? Emergency EU funds? Hardly the time to be so patriotic and self-sufficient, if that was the reason…

Day 4 also saw the unveiling of a Bulgarian “wonder-machine”. A prototype conversion of a Soviet T-62 military tank, adapted to carry 10 tons of water, fitted with a bulldozer blade and shovels, emerged from development in Targovishte. The Defence Minister hailed this as a great occasion to “test out” the vehicle. I haven’t read any more about it – did it even get to the mountain, enter the critical area; was its “test run” successful? Don’t know! (But, I must admit, I had a quiet chuckle!)

Wonder machine “on test”: Photo: Bulgarian Min. of Defence

The forest reserve

After a couple of days, the scientists started to peep out of the woodwork (excuse the pun). At least they managed to shed some cold light on the actual circumstances of this fire, and their associated problems and consequences. There were several factors, according to various experts, that accounted for the nature and extent of the unfolding disaster.

The reserve is a totally protected area. So, basically, it’s left as an unmanaged, natural forest. Some 10 or so years ago (2001, in fact), a hurricane had uprooted many of the spruce trees in that locality, most of which were up to 120 years old. Their fallen trunks were, as legally required, left undisturbed. This has since caused two significant problems: the long-term one of woodworm infestation affecting live trees; and the relatively short-term fact that dead, dry tree trunks and branches littered the forest floor where they fell, thus considerably hampering any kind of access to the wildfire this week.

But the real long-term disaster is that more than half the area of Bistritsa Branishte is home to some 450 protected species of flora, many of which are on the endangered list (the so-called Bulgarian Red Book), and 80% of the bird population is also comprised of protected species.

What is more, according to law, there can be no further intervention in restoration of the destroyed area. Special permission had to be granted to allow even the cutting of 4-metre firebreak alleys in this emergency.

Flames of conspiracy

I’m naturally averse to easy conspiracy theories, which abound on any and every topic in Bulgaria, as I have frequently observed.

However, on this occasion…

  • First, whatever the cause, this is a lamentable environmental disaster, both locally, nationally and in international terms of protection of our planet.
  • Watching events unfold day by day, it’s increasingly difficult not to become suspicious of the situation and the way it’s being handled. Reading Bulgarian social media this week has been a real eye-opener, and contrasts significantly with what “officials” have been mouthing.
  • A leading Bulgarian environmentalist made some damning observations on local TV. He commented on a “lack of will” in the initial response to the outbreak, something borne out by volunteers’ statements; he stated the “need of a crisis plan” to deal with such events; he maintained the fire was “not an accident”, suggesting it might be a means to “distract attention” – but from what?

Enlarging on the above

  • Lack of will: as already mentioned, why were international offers of assistance turned down while the conflagration continued to spread? Why was the initial response so slow, according to some?
  • Need of a crisis plan: a few years ago, the Bulgarian government abolished the Ministry of Disaster Management Policy, citing the incompetence of its then director (Emel Etem Toshkova). Since then, there’s been a completely consistent (and delayed) knee-jerk reaction to disasters, despite the existence of a State Agency for Civil Protection*. It took the horrible inundation of the village of Biser early this year to provoke the drawing up of a list of reservoirs and dams nationwide, and to initiate an emergency programme of safety inspection of such facilities. The promised assistance to the washed-out inhabitants was also protracted – in fact, as the issue is now totally out of the news agenda, who actually knows whether those unfortunate villagers have yet been re-housed, even temporarily? And, by the way, did GERB, the ruling party, eventually cough up its much-vaunted relief donation of 1 million Leva? (It hadn’t done so by mid-May, apparently.)
  • It took the earthquakes in May, similarly, to provoke a national safety audit of roads, bridges and viaducts, with some alarming results – highway infrastructure rotting away even while European funds are massively absorbed for the construction of totally new motorways. (It was interesting to read on Saturday that one crack discovered in the structure of a UK motorway bridge near London immediately led to the closure of that section to all traffic.) As for the Bulgarian solution to local earthquakes – police cars will (eventually) circulate in urban areas, to tell the citizens shivering in their bed-clothes  while huddled in the streets, that an earthquake has occurred. Bizarre! Oh, Kafka, where are you now?
  • Should a new, dedicated ‘disaster department’ be re-introduced, I wonder? Sufficiently funded this time, and with some real(istic) responsibilities and power, and an effective boss?
  • In what appears to be the absence of such an effective coordinating and publicly accountable organisation, it’s been difficult to reconcile the conflicting “statements”, “facts” and “propaganda” that have emerged on the subject throughout the past seven days. Political figures merely make bland announcements – they don’t normally want to burden us, the boring public, with anything resembling an explanation; likewise, the media in general don’t ask the questions we bores want answered; either through self-censorship, fear of vested interests, or – as I largely suspect, a complete lack of professional curiosity and responsibility on their part.
  • The fire was no accident: the red-hot issue! What’s behind this accusation? Lots!
  • As already noted, the head of the firefighting services concluded (early on) that it was unlikely to be the result of a “tourist error”.
  • Even I find it most strange that a section of Vitosha mysteriously erupts in unexplained wildfire at precisely the time when the status of such territory is the most contentious current political issue. Amendments to the Forestry Act are, even this past week, ongoing in parliament, with the key clause (the infamous No. 54) regarding regulation of change of use of protected land for commercial activity remaining unresolved.
  • Add to that the fact that Vitosha Ski, the company at the heart of this entire controversy, issued several challenging statements and accusations this week against the recent protests of environmentalists and ordinary citizens, who together object to the activities and perceived strategies of this dubiously-run company in which the head of the Bulgarian Skiing Assocation, Tseko ‘Teddy Bear‘ Minev, is deeply involved. Vitosha Ski has basically accused them all of being the dupes of other “counter-interests”, as well as insulting them all as “cocaine-heads”.

But, what I find strangest of all is the news (which has taken quite a while to trickle out) that this same company plans / wants to construct an artificial reservoir to provide a source of readily available water to be used for creating artificial snow on their Vitosha property. So, where would this envisaged reservoir be located?

Bistritsa Branishtse, of course! Well, where else?

I’m publishing this item at 03:50+ on Sunday morning, 8th. July. The latest local information I can find on the situation was published  on Saturday afternoon, and then the fire was still not fully extinguished. But then, it’s probably “old news” by now.

Let’s just ‘brush it under the carpet’, as we say, it’s only a few old trees, flowers and birds… the flames may be extinguished for the moment, but the thick public smoke-screen will remain in place, as ever.

… but, here we are, one week on. Photo BNR.

* “The State Agency for Civil Protection is a legal entity funded by the state budget with headquarters in Sofia. The Agency implements the state policy in the area of the protection in crisis situations caused by natural factors and by technical activities. It is a working body of the Standing Committee on the Protection of the Population in the Cases of Disasters and Accidents at the Council of Ministers.”

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