Europe seeks solutions as it grapples with catastrophic forest fires

As forest fires ravage the Mediterranean region, many have questioned whether these fires are a staple of global warming or whether action can be taken to reverse the trend.

A colossal heat wave, with temperatures reaching a record 48.8 degrees Celsius in Italy last week, has fueled forest fires that have devastated swathes of land and killed dozens of people in southern Europe and North Africa, from Turkey, Greece and Italy to Morocco and Algeria.

“What is clear is that climate change will cause us to see [more of] such events, ”French President Emmanuel Macron said this week after visiting the Saint-Tropez region, where a huge fire caused the evacuation of 10,000 people from their homes.

Tom Smith, associate professor at the London School of Economics, said that “climate change certainly plays a role in all forest fires on the planet now”. By drying the air and sucking moisture from vegetation, rising temperatures create ideal conditions for fires to start and spread quickly.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has predicted that the Mediterranean region will face extreme heat in the decades to come.

Yet while climate change plays an indisputable role in the proliferation and scale of forest fires, so do changes in the way people live and the way land is used. Human actions are also the cause of the vast majority of fires in Europe.

Much of Europe is fertile ground for fires, with around 40 percent of its landmass covered with trees. As rural populations moved to towns and villages in search of employment, some cultivated land was turned into flammable vegetation and forest.

The European Forest Fire Information System recorded more than 1,400 fires this year as of August 18, more than 600 more than the recent annual average.

Fire specialists say the most effective measures to reduce the prevalence and ferocity of fires will be to reduce the fuel they feed on through effective land management, as well as improving rapid response capacity and raising awareness. the public.

A helicopter drops water as fires rage in Navalmoral de la Sierra near Avila, Spain on August 16

A huge forest fire in the Avila region last weekend means this season has reversed the recent trend in Spain where fires have subsided © Cesar Manso / AFP / Getty

“We must be ready [as] these fires will continue to occur. We have to do something about climate change, but more than that, we have to do something for the landscape, ”said Cathelijne Stoof, assistant professor at Wageningen University in the Netherlands.

As hundreds of fires have ravaged Greece in recent weeks, destroying tens of thousands of hectares of forest, the government has come under fire for its inability to prepare.

“The forests of Greece have been abandoned for years now. They have become extremely dense, which is why they are highly flammable, ”said Demetres Karavellas, managing director of the WWF Greece conservation group. He added that there was hardly any forest in Greece with clear management plans and that forestry authorities were “non-existent”.

After wildfires in the summer of 2018 killed 103 people, the Greek government commissioned a report from German scientists to identify the systemic issues it faced in preparing for the wildfires. Experts said some of the report’s recommendations were ignored, although this was denied last week by Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis who said he did not agree with all of the report’s findings.

Elsewhere, progress has been made in preventive land management. This includes the use of “tactical burns”, whereby fires are started when the weather is more moderate to remove dry surface vegetation before the fire season.

A line graph of the number of fires mapped in EU countries showing that forest fires have been more common in Europe this year

Spain, one of the EU countries with the most forested land, has been hailed as a success, in terms of preventive measures and emergency response. These have enabled it to significantly reduce both the number and the average size of forest fires, despite rising temperatures and a rural exodus.

The country’s ten-year average number of fires has been declining for more than a decade, during which only about a third of fires have burned more than one hectare of land. In the 1980s, this figure exceeded 70%.

A huge forest fire in the Avila region last weekend means this season has turned the recent trend in Spain. However, Guillermo Fernández Centeno, a senior Environment Ministry official, said: “Fires can always increase in any given year. . . but in terms of ten-year averages, we don’t think we can reduce it much further.

He and others credit greater public awareness and a fire management system that enables rapid response to deal with fires in their early stages.

Pierre Carrega, professor emeritus at the University of Nice, said French authorities have also implemented policies to reduce the risk of fires. Pastures and roads have been created in the woods to act as “fire breaks” and people living in the forests are now required by law to clear around their homes – although this is not always observed.

A bubble chart comparing the number of hectares burned in 2021 in European countries with the annual average between 2008 and 2020. Italy and Greece recorded much greater fire damage than usual while Portugal experienced moderate levels compared to historical figures

In other parts of Europe, including the UK, environmentalists have reintroduced animals to graze on abandoned farmland to prevent the build-up of flammable vegetation.

Stoof in the Netherlands said she believes geographic interventions should be taken further. In rural Mediterranean landscapes, she argued, governments should invest in roads, high-speed internet and schools to attract people to abandoned rural lands.

While humans can help tame the landscape, they are responsible for approximately 96% of forest fires in the Mediterranean, according to a WWF analysis, the initial spark often begins at the side of a road or on the outskirts of houses. Several people were also arrested on suspicion of arson in connection with the fires in Greece.

Scientists remain concerned that the vast majority of investment is still directed towards removal, rather than education and management of the landscape.

Carrega stressed the need to improve education around the often accidental causes of fires. These precautionary measures have always been taken directly after major disasters but, he said, “little by little the effort slackens until the next big fire in five or ten years”.

He added: “Forest fires are forgotten until they explode.”

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