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Wildfire season is upon us: Here's what the European Union is putting in place

Residents try to reach their houses in Benijos village as a wildfire advances in La Orotava in Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain in August 2023
Residents try to reach their houses in Benijos village as a wildfire advances in La Orotava in Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain in August 2023 Copyright Arturo Rodriguez/The AP
Copyright Arturo Rodriguez/The AP
By Saskia O'Donoghue
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Following a devastating summer of fires across Europe last year, the EU has upped its resources to prevent widespread damage in 2024.

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With summer just around the corner, we’re all dreaming of sunshine and swimming in the sea - but with the hot weather comes the risk of wildfires.

That’s where the European Union comes in. From June, they’re putting in place measures to bolster firefighting efforts in order to better protect communities across Europe - and the surrounding environment.

Following devastating fires in 2023 - recorded as some of the very worst this century - the EU has put together a team of 556 firefighters from 12 countries.

They’ll be strategically placed across key locations in Europe this summer, including in high risk areas like France, Greece, Portugal and Spain.

Local fire brigades can find themselves overwhelmed when the scale of a wildfire outsizes the response capabilities of a country.

The EU are also introducing a dedicated rescue fleet of firefighting aircraft, which will consist of 28 aeroplanes and 4 helicopters stationed in 10 of the bloc’s Member States.

There’s also €600 million in extra EU funds which will go towards buying 12 further firefighting planes in the future, which will be distributed among six Member States - as well as several helicopters.

Here’s what four of the countries involved are planning to do this summer to save lives, livelihoods and protect the environment when wildfire season arrives.

France

Météo-France recently announced they believe the summer of 2024 will likely be hotter than usual - especially in the Mediterranean region.

Last year, 22,400 hectares of forests were lost to wildfires. Using that tragic example, France has put in place some 3,600 firefighters and 600 vehicles, whose role will be to strengthen the resources of the Departmental Fire and Rescue Service - known as the SDIS.

The resources come from regions typically less affected by forest fires and will bolster the work done by departments more likely to experience them.

France also has twelve Canadair CL-415s planes, which can each carry more than 6,000 litres of water. Two of them are positioned in Ajaccio in Corsica and the other ten in Nîmes.

They’ll be supported by a further eight Dash planes - seven based in Nîmes and another in Bordeaux. They can each carry 10,000 litres of water.

As of 1 June, they’ll be on active service as and when they are needed alongside a number of other aircraft with firefighting capabilities.

French President Emmanuel Macron (C) poses with rescue workers and firefighters at the Nimes-Garons firefighters air base in 2023
French President Emmanuel Macron (C) poses with rescue workers and firefighters at the Nimes-Garons firefighters air base in 2023AP Photo/Daniel Cole/Pool/File

Portugal

2023 was an intense year of wildfires for Portugal and, as such, the country’s rural firefighting system will be reinforced from 1 June for the second time this year.

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Ahead of the summer season, there will be some 12,096 operational units and 70 aircraft available for use.

Many of the people involved in the Special Rural Fire Fighting Device (DECIR) are volunteer firefighters. Others will be drawn from the Special Civil Protection Force, military personnel from the National Republican Guard and also from the Institute for the Conservation of Nature and Forests.

Unlike in France, Portugal will not be using Canadair planes, apparently due to difficulties in the market. That came as a surprise to the crews who had been carrying out this service for over 20 years.

With the weather heating up from July, resources are set to be reinforced again from the first of the month until 30 September - the period considered as the most critical phase of fires.

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In that three month stretch, 14,155 operational personnel from 3,162 teams will be on standby this year, as well as 3,173 vehicles - which is a slight increase compared to 2023.

A firefighting helicopter flies amid clouds of smoke from a wildfire burning near houses in Alcabideche, outside Lisbon in July 2023
A firefighting helicopter flies amid clouds of smoke from a wildfire burning near houses in Alcabideche, outside Lisbon in July 2023AP Photo/Armando Franca

Spain

2023 saw hundreds of thousands of hectares of woodland destroyed in Spain, as well as more than 3,000 people forced to evacuate the Canary Island of Tenerife in the summer season.

From 1 June, the Spanish state forest fire campaign is in place. Taking in consideration the tragedies of last year, authorities have introduced a more robust plan to more effectively fight any potential forest fires occurring in different areas of the country.

Last month, at a meeting of the State Coordination and Direction Committee (CECOD) in Spain, politicians came together to finalise plans.

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It includes the Forest Fire Reinforcement Brigades (BRIF) and a fleet of high-capacity seaplanes, which is operated by the 43 Group of the Air and Space Army.

The Military Emergency Unit of the Ministry of Defence and the Civil Guard and National Police will be able to support devices put in place by the country’s various autonomous communities.

Catalonia has historically been one of the worst affected regions in Spain.

The acting Minister of the Interior, Joan Ignasi Elena, highlighted that it "faces an extremely complex campaign, which is not temporary and which has severe consequences."

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As a result, 240 new firefighters have been recruited to join hundreds of others.

The Corps of Rural Agents has gone from having about 500 troops to a total of 620 in the face of the increased forest fire campaign.

There will also be 22 aircraft including planes and helicopters, with 4 amphibious craft located in Sabadell and Empuriabrava, supported by 821 cars and vans.

Less than halfway through the year, 2024 has been recorded as one of the driest ever in Catalonia in decades.

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Between 1 January and 15 May 15 this year, firefighters have already battled 1,750 vegetation fires. That figure is slightly down on last year, though, thanks to heavy April rains.

Despite this, authorities have installed 5 levels to their climate emergency plan - meaning that they are as prepared as possible to fight any potential blazes ahead.

Local residents try to clean a forest to prevent it from flames as fire advances in La Orotava in Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain in August 2023
Local residents try to clean a forest to prevent it from flames as fire advances in La Orotava in Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain in August 2023Arturo Rodriguez/The AP

Italy

“Good prevention, with the full involvement of municipalities and citizens, can serve to save thousands of hectares of vegetation,” Nello Musumeci, the Minister for Civil Protection in Italy said at a meeting earlier this spring.

Called to address this summer's forest fire fighting campaign, the meeting was attended by representatives of Italy’s regions (ANCI), the Fire Brigade, the Armed Forces, as well as the Ministries of the Interior, Defence, Environment, Agriculture and Economy.

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Italy is currently facing temperatures well above the usual, which have a knock on effect on the availability of water.

Fire burns near the towns of Alcamo and Partinico, in western Sicily, Italy in August 2023. The intensity of the fires forced the closure of nearby Trapani airport
Fire burns near the towns of Alcamo and Partinico, in western Sicily, Italy in August 2023. The intensity of the fires forced the closure of nearby Trapani airportAlberto Lo Bianco/LaPresse via AP

The south of the country and the islands are particularly likely to be affected, but all administrations in Italy have prepared contingencies for both forest fires and those in built up areas.

As well as this, Musumeci has made sure to put in place a widespread campaign of raising awareness among populations via the media.

While many fires are due to climate change, he has a further plan.

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“I will suggest the opportunity for greater surveillance in rural areas to discourage arsonists and criminals in their senseless purposes,” Musumeci suggests, “let's remember that the vast majority of fires are caused by humans, through fault or malice."

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