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Wildfire season has started. Here's what Europe's doing wrong

Firefighters spray water as they try to douse a fire near the village of Biguglia, Corsica island, France, July 25, 2017.
Firefighters spray water as they try to douse a fire near the village of Biguglia, Corsica island, France, July 25, 2017. Copyright AP Photo/Raphael Poletti
Copyright AP Photo/Raphael Poletti
By Alice Tidey
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The EU is focusing too much on suppressing wildfires, one expert told Euronews, and not properly addressing the root causes.

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By the time summer officially started in Europe this week, sparkling new Canadairs and other firefighting vehicles had been delivered across European Union countries and hundreds of firefighters were already pre-positioned to tackle any wildfire that might ignite.

Europe's wildfire season is not so much upcoming as it is ongoing with stats already well above the average, suggesting that 2023 could be devastating.

For some, this is proof that the way the EU deals with wildfires is short-sighted with too much emphasis on emergency services and not enough on prevention.

There is also worry that policymakers have been slow to address the air pollution caused by wildfires, which is suspected of being far deadlier than the fires themselves.

Spain and France already deeply impacted

According to the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS), more than 119,000 hectares had already been reduced to cinders across the EU by 18 June, well above the average of 80,000 hectares recorded by that time over the 2003-2022 period.

It took just 31 days for the curves depicting this year’s weekly cumulative number of fires and burnt areas to diverge significantly from the ones tracing the last two decades’ averages.

This is despite nearly a dozen countries, including Greece and Italy — two of the traditionally most inflicted nations — seeing below-average figures. The surface burnt in both countries so far this year represents just 10% of the averages they usually see at this time of year.

But Spain and France have not been so lucky. The surface burnt in France has already reached over 21,000 hectares, about 3.5 times the average for the past two decades This is dwarfed by the 66,200 hectares Spain has lost so far this year in 324 fires - both numbers having more than quadrupled.

A spate of countries in central and eastern Europe have also seen numbers jump, albeit from a very low level, but nonetheless confirming a trend observed over the last few years that see wildfires now gradually creeping northward too.

Fire suppression vs prevention

This comes after more than 830,000 hectares were devastated last year — the second worst year since 2006 — with damages estimated at around the €2.5 billion mark.

In response, the EU bolstered its arsenal to combat wildfires by doubling its firefighting fleet this year to count 28 aircraft stationed across 10 countries. And for the second year running, hundreds of firefighters have been pre-positioned, this time in Greece, France and Portugal.

This is of course welcome, but for Prof Dr Johann Georg Goldammer, the director of the Germany-based Global Fire Monitoring Centre (GFMC), it does little to address the root causes.

"At the moment I see that almost all governments are repeating the same and what has been done previously in Southern Europe - focusing on fire suppression, calling for modern vehicles, aeroplanes," and participation in the EU Civil Protection Mechanism, he told Euronews.

"It seems that this is, for politicians and for the European Commission and governments, kind of an indicator of progress.

"But I don't see any investment to address the underlying causes of fire, you know, like forestry and land management," he said. 

Climate and demographic changes

Climate change plays a role in the multiplication and intensity of wildfires.

Over a quarter of the EU's territory is in warning conditions for drought with a further 10% on alert, according to the European Drought Observatory, because of serious rainfall and soil moisture deficits.

And then there is the rising mercury. Europe has been warming twice as much as the global average since the 1980s and was, last year, approximately 2.3°C above the pre-industrial (1850-1900) average.

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Since then, the world experienced its warmest May and early June on record with the global-mean temperature actually breaching the 1.5⁰C limit in the first week of this month.

All this means that across large swathes of the continent the land, is much drier than normal, facilitating the spread of wildfires.

But demographic changes also shoulder a lot of the blame. The desertification of rural areas in favour of urban centres means that the land is no longer managed in the same way.

Biomass which was traditionally used for farming or heating or other local human activities, "is now available to wildfire", Goldammer told Euronews.

Short-term measures like preventive burning to reduce the flammable biomass on certain corridors can help but they're no magic bullet. 

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Leah Hogsten/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP
US volunteer wildland firefighters from multiple agencies use drip torches to start a prescribed burn within Fish Lake National Forest, Nov. 6, 2021.Leah Hogsten/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP

The GFMC has been recommending that European governments make rural space more attractive to younger generations and invest in traditional but also innovative land management to decrease the flammability of the lands.

"Part of it is the fact that this takes an enormous amount of time. It's so easy to buy half a dozen aeroplanes or ground tankers, you know, investing some billions and presenting them in a nice press conference," Goldammer said.

"But investing in giving subsidies to local farmers and to shepherds, to modify the flammability of the land, takes a long time. It takes years. And the success is not easy to prove. It's hard to prove any fire that has been prevented," he added. 

Where there's fire, there's smoke

If the old adage goes that where there is smoke there is fire, the reverse is also true and smoke, it turns out, could prove even more dangerous.

"When there's burning vegetation, a vast range of very toxic and hazardous gases, as well as particulate matter (PM), is emitted and that has direct impacts on local air quality," Mark Parrington, a senior scientist at the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF), told Euronews.

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PM2.5 air pollution caused by vegetation fires across Europe is believed to have caused 1,400 premature deaths in 2005 and a further 1,000 in 2008, according to the European Health Observatory. Meanwhile, 865 people died in wildfires between 1945 and 2016 in Greece, Portugal, Spain and the Italian island of Sardinia.

"Health effects related to these massive exposures to air pollution include increased risk of respiratory and cardiometabolic symptoms," Zorana J. Andersen, the Environment and Health Committee Chair at the European Respiratory Society, told Euronews. These could lead to severe consequences that require the need for medication or hospitalisations.

"In fragile patients, these air pollution episodes can even trigger death. Patients with chronic diseases, especially severe asthma, both children and adults are especially vulnerable, as well as elderly citizens, heart patients, pregnant women and people working outdoors," she added.

Air pollution is at its highest close to the fire.

But in the case of mega-fires — the likes of which we've seen in France, Portugal, Spain and Greece in recent years — when the right, or rather wrong, meteorological conditions are in place, it can travel.

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For instance, smoke from the wildfires in Canada over the past few weeks has, at times, got high enough it was picked up by the jet stream and crossed the Atlantic, Parrington said. At other times, weather conditions kept the smoke close to the ground where it was then transported by the wind to large population centres.

Heatwaves further reduce the air quality and exacerbate the pollution, “reminding us that air pollution and climate change solutions go hand in hand”, the ERS expert added.

European policymakers, she said, should urgently pass legislation to lower greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change and “have a historical opportunity to pass the most ambitious air pollution legislation globally” through the ongoing revision of the Ambient Air Quality Directive.

“This would lead to significant reductions of air pollution and related direct major improvements in health, and at the same time ensure mitigation of climate change, with an indirect positive impact on health,” Andersen said.

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