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European heatwave: Which countries face the biggest risk from wildfires?

A firefighter douses the flames in an effort to contain a fire near the Kotsiatis area, on the outskirts of Cyprus' capital Nicosia.
A firefighter douses the flames in an effort to contain a fire near the Kotsiatis area, on the outskirts of Cyprus' capital Nicosia.   -   Copyright  IAKOVOS HATZISTAVROU / AFP
By Rosie Frost

Parts of the Mediterranean and central Europe are set to experience intensely high summer temperatures in the coming weeks, putting them at high risk from wildfires.

The continent saw this season’s first heatwave in mid-June as the mercury climbed to 35 degrees celsius in many places. Scorching temperatures have also seen people in Balkan countries such as Bosnia, Kosovo and Serbia seek refuge from the unusually hot early summer weather.

With rising temperatures across the Northern Hemisphere comes an increased risk of wildfires.

Although it is difficult to show that climate change directly causes these flames to spread across our forests, extreme weather and droughts undeniably make them longer and more intense.

European countries at risk from forest fires

In recent years the impact of forest fires on people and nature has increased across Europe. Despite efforts to minimise their impact, more than 400,000 hectares of natural areas had burnt in the EU by October 2020 - double the average over the last 12 years.

“Humans already put enormous pressure on the world's forests, and wildfires are an additional threat,” says Frans Timmermans, executive vice-president for the European Green Deal.

“With the risk of wildfires exacerbated by rising temperatures and increasing droughts, stronger forest protection, better prevention and faster responses are crucial.”

Ahead of this year’s fire season, the European Commission published new guidelines to better understand and respond to wildfires. As part of the EU Biodiversity Strategy, it is hoping to equip member states to prevent and respond to these natural disasters.

So with temperatures rising across Europe, where are these measures likely to be needed most?

Cyprus

On Saturday, a huge fire swept across forests in the foothills of the Troodos mountains in Cyprus. Columns of smoke could be seen from the capital Nicosia 75 kilometres away.

Four people were killed, numerous homes destroyed and villages evacuated as strong winds fanned the flames. More than 50 square kilometres of forest and farmland were damaged, according to Cyprus’ Environment Ministry.

Extended heat waves and drought have become more frequent in recent years, increasing the risk of fires. The region has seen very little rain since April and temperatures inland reached 40 degrees Celsius last week.

IAKOVOS HATZISTAVROU / AFP
A picture taken on July 4, 2021 shows a destroyed house and car at Eptagonia village on the southern slopes of the Troodos mountains close to Agioi Vavatsinias village.IAKOVOS HATZISTAVROU / AFP

Firefighters have now brought the blaze “under full control” after help was brought in from the UK, Israel and several EU nations. Director of the Department of Forests, Charalambos Alexandrou described it as “the worst forest fire in the history of Cyprus”.

President Nicos Anastasiades said it was “a very difficult day” for the country and pledged that the government would “provide immediate assistance” to victims.

Greece

A heatwave in Greece has brought local temperatures of over 40 degrees celsius. Last week, the country’s Civil Protection agency issued a map warning of a number of areas where there was a high risk of wildfires. Six out of Greece’s 13 administrative regions including the South Aegean, Thessaly and Attica, were at “very high risk” of fire last Thursday.

After 10 days of extreme temperatures and drought, extensive fires broke out on the island of Kefalonia on Saturday. The fire brigade deployed aircraft and evacuated several villages after flames spread across the southeast of the island.

With strong winds and high temperatures set to continue in the coming days, the fire risk remains high according to emergency services.

Spain

On the 29th of June, a blaze broke out near the Malaga town of Casabermeja. Thankfully a lack of strong winds meant that 30 firefighters contained the blaze to around 0.3 hectares of land.

But this fire is unlikely to be the last as the region is one of Spain’s most at risk from forest fires. Andalucia’s forest fire unit, INFOCA, says it has already tackled a total of 138 forest fires this year with 1,360 hectares of land burnt.

With the increased risk, the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and Sustainable Development has announced a ban on the use of fire and motor vehicles in forested areas.

Italy

Since Saturday, fires have been burning in 11 areas around eastern Sicily. Inland areas with no sea winds to cool them down have been particularly affected including Scordia, Syracuse and Catania.

The Department of Civil Protection has said that on the 4th of July alone, a total of 34 substantial fires devastated hectares of land with hundreds of minor incidents across the region.

Though the cause of the blazes is yet to be determined, there is a history in Sicily of fires being set over land disputes. Director of the Department of Civil Protection Salvo Cocina said that there were too many “criminals in action who take advantage of the high temperatures.”

In mid-June, the heat in Lascari reached nearly 44 degrees celsius, one of the highest recorded temperatures in Europe so far this year. Although the cause of ignition may not be climate change, the two-week long heatwave means that the region is at high risk from wildfires.