Deadly mega-fires bring new challenge to Europe
The European Union describes wildfires as “a serious and increasing threat” across the continent.
Most alarmingly, forest blazes are growing in intensity, especially in southern countries such as Greece, Spain, France, Italy and Portugal but also in Scandinavia.
Experts warn the continent needs to get ready for blazes that reach a massive new scale. These superfires, or mega-fires, are catastrophic events that kill and blacken broad areas and are hard to stop.
Here’s a look at Europe’s wildfire problem.
Between 2000 and 2017, 611 firefighters and civilians died in wildfires in European Union countries, with economic damage calculated at more than 54 billion euros ($60.5 billion).
Portugal suffers more than most, recording over 18,000 wildfires a year since 2007. Huge blazes in 2017 killed at least 106 people.
Though the European trend is for fewer blazes and smaller areas charred, except in Portugal, bigger and meaner forest fires are stretching emergency assets and government budgets.
Added to that, the peak fire season is becoming longer, extending into June and October, with an increasing number of mega-fires.
These extreme blazes are characterized by the rapid spread of flames, intense burning, unpredictable shifts in direction and embers that are carried far away.
But according to an EU report last year, authorities are still using traditional methods to fight fires, relying on water to extinguish flames instead of investing in long-term efforts needed for prevention.
What’s causing it?
In Western Europe, people have been leaving the land and moving to the cities.
Abandoned fields, pastures and forests have been left to themselves, becoming overgrown with what turns into fuel for wildfires.
Instead of a properly tended patchwork of different vegetation, some of which is more fire-resistant, large areas of countryside have dense and continuous forest cover which benefit and propagate blazes.
Conifer forests and eucalyptus plantations, which provide income for landowners, are common and burn fiercely.
The spread of urban areas, meanwhile, has brought homes close to forests, and danger lies in the proximity.
In Greece last summer, an additional hazard came from lax oversight of urban planning. Illegally constructed buildings in woodland and coastal areas were a contributing factor in the deaths of 101 people in Mati, outside of Athens, where many drowned as they tried to swim away from intense heat and smoke engulfing beaches.
More severe droughts nowadays are leaving forests tinder-dry. Spells of unusually high temperatures are also facilitating blazes. Both of those challenges have come with climate change, with scientists saying that Sahara-like conditions are jumping the Mediterranean Sea into southern Europe.
Forest management policies work on a decades-long timescale and need to be more adaptable, EU authorities say.
Prevention “does not receive the necessary emphasis and funding compared to fire suppression,” according to the EU, while “the preparedness of agencies and communities to deal with extreme fire events is often far from optimal.”
What can be done?
Experts say authorities must shift their firefighting focus from suppression to prevention, taking into account aspects such as climate adaptation, education and preparedness.
That includes the regular thinning of forests and undergrowth; creating fire breaks; introducing more climate-resilient plant species; and ensuring diversified forests.
Preventively setting fire to countryside, called “prescribed burning,” is regarded as an efficient prevention technique but is controversial in some countries. Greece prohibits it while others, such as France, Portugal and some regions of Spain and Italy allow it under certain conditions.
Technology is also being developed to help fight wildfires, including drones for detection, quick responses, mapping and assessing fire dynamics.
But the EU notes that fire management in Europe is “not making full use of the knowledge and innovation delivered by scientific projects.”
The EU is urging governments to get a better grasp of how climate change is affecting their countries.
The European Forest Institute, established by 29 European countries, struck a gloomy note last year.
If authorities don’t change the make-up of the countryside, the EFI said in a report, emergency services won’t be able to stop what experts refer to as “6th generation wildfires” – commonly known as fire storms.