A long-range drone equipped with thermal imaging cameras and a sophisticated early warning system patrols over Kavouri beach and nearby woodland, in southern Athens, Greece. Image Credit: AP

Athens: The nightmare repeats itself every year: A towering wall of flames devours forests, farmland and homes, forcing animals and people to flee for their lives.

With their hot, dry summers, Greece and its southern European neighbors experience hundreds of devastating wildfires each year. Last week alone, wildfires killed 21 people in Greece. The country’s deadliest, in 2018, cost more than 100 lives. And experts warn that climate change is likely to exacerbate extreme weather, fueling more wildfires.

This summer, a group of residents in a leafy suburb of the Greek capital united in determination to prevent the nightmare from reaching their homes.

In less than a week in early August, an initial group of three people with a shared concern grew to an online community of about 320 offering donations to hire a company using long-range drones equipped with thermal imaging cameras as a sophisticated early warning system to catch wildfires before they can spread.

“We’re all worried, we’re all anxious,” said Melina Throuvala, a psychologist and one of the three residents who started the project for drone patrols in the northern Athens suburbs of Kifissia, Ekali and Nea Erithrea. “We don’t want to mourn victims, or to see our environment and our forests burning or our homes threatened. That was the main incentive.”

And with wildfires, prevention is key.

A drone pilot changes the batteries of a long-range drone equipped with thermal imaging cameras and a sophisticated early warning system, in the northern suburb of Nea Erithrea, Athens, Greece. Image Credit: AP

Operated by drone pilots with advanced training to fly beyond the visual line of sight and with permission from civil aviation authorities, the drones provide live images and detect changes in temperature, alerting their handlers in the critical early stages before a fire spreads. The drones run 24/7, with pilots working in six-hour shifts.

“The first few minutes are the most crucial for a fire,” said Giorgos Dertilis, who heads the local volunteer firefighting unit. “At the start it’s easier to put out the fire. The more the minutes go by, the harder our job becomes.”

Volunteer units are integrated into Greece’s Civil Protection system, working closely with professional fire departments. With no fire station in the wider Kifissia area, volunteers often can get to local blazes faster.

The drone company operates from the volunteer firefighters’ headquarters, so they can react immediately at any signs of a fire.

Right from the start, the drone program's value was apparent. On the first or second day after the drone system was installed, a fire broke out near a shuttered hotel in the area, Dertilis said.

“The (drone) handler called us, we saw the smoke, so when we were on our way ... we knew, we were prepared to see a fire,” he said. They quickly extinguished the blaze. “It's very important to know what to expect.”

The system’s innovation, said Emmanouil Angelakis, managing director of the company operating the drones, is that it includes specialized personnel, software, servers and satellite antenna so that “drones, day and night, can scan all the forest areas with thermal cameras and sensors and give live images and coordinates of where a fire starts.”

A drone pilot points on a screen the live images from a long-range drone equipped with thermal imaging cameras and a sophisticated early warning system. Image Credit: AP

It’s a tried and tested operation. Designed and set up with the help of Grigoris Konstantellos, a commercial airline pilot and mayor of the southern Athens seaside suburbs of Vari, Voula and Vouliagmeni, it began operating there last year.

“We didn’t discover it, we created it,” Kontantellos said of the program. “We said, ‘Why shouldn’t this capability exist?’”

The idea came in June 2022, after a wind-whipped wildfire descended on his municipality from a mountain ridge. As they coordinated the emergency response, authorities realized they had a problem.

“We were chasing the fire,” the mayor said. With the flames moving rapidly, keeping track of where water trucks were needed was a challenge. “We couldn’t see basic things on the ground. We’d see them with a delay, because we weren’t right in front of them.”

An extensive review of the emergency response followed. “We saw that what was missing is for us to not chase the fire, but to be able to have a live image of the fire, of where our assets are and where the threat is,” Konstantellos said. They thought of drones.

The fire department already uses drones during an active blaze, covering a small area. What was needed was to see a fire right at the start, and stop it in its tracks.

Getting in touch with the drone company, the fire prevention program was born. In the year and a half it’s been operational, it’s given early warnings for fires 12 times, Konstantellos said.

Grigoris Konstantellos, a commercial airline pilot and mayor of the southern Athens seaside suburbs of Vari, Voula and Vouliagmeni, shows a long-range drone. Image Credit: AP

“We’ve caught fires at 3:30 in the morning,” the mayor said. “When we sent the Civil Protection, they couldn’t even find the fire. We could see it on the drone.” Last week, when 270 lighting strikes sparked six blazes in the area during a storm, emergency services got there before the fires could spread.

The drones have a range of 15 kilometers (nearly 10 miles) and are equipped with loudspeakers and searchlights to warn off people doing banned outdoor work on high fire-risk days — or to frighten off potential arsonists . The municipality is even running a pilot program to prevent drownings, whereby drones can drop lifejackets to swimmers in distress.

The municipality pays 13,000-14,000 euros ($14,000-15,000) per month for 24/7 coverage. “For a municipality, it’s a viable number to have peace of mind from the fires,” Konstantellos said.

Angelakis, the drone company’s managing director, said the Kifissia residents’ privately funded initiative “was the first time this happened on a volunteer basis and not by a state body.”

Kifissia's nearby municipality of Dionysos followed, with its privately funded operation working out of the town hall.

Residents of less affluent areas would be less able to afford private funding. But other municipal and regional authorities are interested, said Konstantellos, who noted the drone system can be used to coordinate responses to other events such as floods, earthquakes or major traffic accidents.

“As we say in aviation, ‘A well-trained pilot is the best safety device',” he said. “We convert this to the civil protection and we say: ‘A well-prepared city is the best defense of a city against crisis’.”