Wildfire damages cost €2 billion last year, says EU Commissioner

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By Alice Tidey
A firefighters works to stop a wildfire in Gouveia, in the Serra da Estrela mountain range, in Portugal on Aug. 18, 2022.
A firefighters works to stop a wildfire in Gouveia, in the Serra da Estrela mountain range, in Portugal on Aug. 18, 2022.   -  Copyright  AP Photo/Joao Henriques

The European Union needs to boost investments in wildfire prevention as the forest fire season is becoming longer and more geographically spread, Janez Lenarčič urged this week.

"According to the World Bank study that was done in conjunction with the European Commission, €1 invested in wildfire prevention saves €10 in damage," the European Commissioner for Crisis Management told reporters on Tuesday.

He added that the damage inflicted by wildfires in 2022 is estimated to be "at least €2 billion".

Last year was the second worst year in terms of areas burnt since records began in 2006 with at least 800,000 hectares scorched across the bloc.

The fires were fuelled by longer, more repeated heatwaves and a severe drought impacting most of the continent — phenomena blamed on climate change.

Speaking from the annual "lessons learnt" workshop, held this year in Lisbon, where ministers from the 27 member states gather to discuss the previous fire season and how to boost resilience, Lenarčič said that "even the best equipped, the best-prepared member states asked for assistance" in 2022.

EU member states can request assistance through the Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC). Part of the EU Civil Protection Mechanism, it can be activated by national authorities when their own emergency resources are overwhelmed by a disaster.

In 2022, the ERCC had a reserve capacity, known as rescEU, of 12 firefighting aircraft and one helicopter. These are actually loaned by member states but the Commission cover their operating costs when dispatched through the ERCC.

Hundreds of firefighters were meanwhile pre-positioned across Greece during the summer months, a pilot measure adopted during the previous "lessons learnt" following apocalyptic fires in the country in 2021.

"Last summer this European reserve was depleted, at some point and more than once, we had no spare capacity at the European level anymore to help countries that were affected," Lenarčič said on Tuesday.

He added that this is due in part to the forest fire now starting earlier and ending later as well as wildfires now impacting more and more countries, even those that, unlike Mediterranean countries, were not traditionally affected.

The Commission has already announced new measures, including a doubling of the rescEU capacity as soon as 2023. It has also put forward a Wildfire Prevention Action Plan that aims for increased financing for wildfire prevention actions.