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Forest fires / Wildfires

Europe is grappling with a major wildfire crisis with severe impacts that can be devastating and sometimes irreversible. Forest fires also generate secondary effects since burnt areas become prone to flash floods, soil erosion, landslides and desertification.

  • The frequency and severity of wildfires have increased, triggering reflections on how to deal with the phenomenon of ‘megafires’.
  • The past three years have seen dramatic wildfires kill more people and burn more land than ever before, and have overwhelmed national and EU response capacity.

Socioeconomic developments and changes in land use have fostered the conditions needed for wildfires to ignite and spread.

The movement of people from urban areas, the abandoning of traditional land uses and unsustainable forest management practices have resulted in a large accumulation of combustible fuels, and make forests more prone to fires.

Key risk drivers

Wildfires can be caused either by natural phenomena such as heatwaves, increased temperatures and lightening, or they can be caused by human activity. The likelihood of a wildfire igniting and spreading depends on the type of vegetation, fuel on the ground, topography and weather conditions. A lethal cocktail of these mitigating causes can cause cataclysmic impacts. It is estimated that 95 % of wildfires in Europe are directly or indirectly caused by human behaviour and activities, including negligence and arson.

At the same time, urban sprawl and the growing urban-wildland interface have led to more frequent and dangerous disasters, sometimes with human consequences.

Impacts and vulnerabilities in Europe

Largely based on national disaster risk assessments for EU Member and Civil Protection Mechanism Participating States, the ‘Overview of natural and man-made disaster risks the European Union may face’ aims to foster better understanding of disaster risks facing Europe.

National risk assessment reports reflect the fact that wildfires are a widespread problem throughout Europe. The past three years have seen severe wildfires blazing throughout the continent, including in unusual locations, like the Arctic. The impact of these wildfires is substantial. They have killed more people and burnt more land than in previous years and have overwhelmed national and EU response capacity.

According to the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS),  2021 was the second-worst wildfire season in the European Union since 2000, when EFFIS records began. Damages in 2021 were only surpassed by those in 2017, when over 1 million hectares (ha) burned in the EU. The report finds that large and extreme fires affected many countries, especially in the Mediterranean Basin (e.g. Greece, Turkey) and warns about the current dangerous conditions that can fuel wildfires.

These trends show that over the next decades, Europe will face worsening impacts due to wildfires. Assessments anticipate that the risk of wildfires will increase almost everywhere in Europe, both in terms of likelihood and negative impacts. The number of days with a high level of fire danger is expected to increase with fires occurring in areas that historically have not been prone to them. Due to drier conditions, soil erosion, and degradation and proliferation of pests, there is an increased risk of forest fires to spread and grow.

All these developments will pose new challenges for risk prevention, preparedness, suppression and recovery. Therefore, it is paramount to boost action to prevent and prepare for fires through sustainable forest management practices and a more holistic approach to fire landscape management.

Addressing the risk: Policy framework

The new EU forest strategy for 2030 sets a vision and concrete actions to improve the quantity and quality of EU forests and strengthen their protection, restoration and resilience. It aims to adapt Europe’s forests to the new conditions, weather extremes and high uncertainty brought about by climate change. This is a precondition for forests to continue delivering their socio-economic functions, and to ensure vibrant rural areas with thriving populations.

The EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 and the EU Adaptation Strategy are new priorities for better wildfire , prevention, management and recovery.

Among the many reports on this topic, two in particular are to be mentioned:

Addressing the risk: Supportive measures

The Union Civil Protection Mechanism (UCPM) offers assistance when a fire gets too large for a country to fight on its own. However, the extreme wildfire season of 2017, revealed the UCPM’S limits in responding to multiple and simultaneous emergency situations. As a result, the ‘rescEU’ reserve was introduced to strengthen the European Civil Protection Pool. ‘rescEU’ establishes a new European reserve of resources, which includes a fleet of firefighting planes and helicopters, medical evacuation planes, as well as a stockpile of medical items and field hospitals that can respond to health emergencies.

The common agricultural policy (CAP) provides significant resources for investment in forestry measures, including those for addressing forest fire risk. The cohesion policy also provides significant funds for wildfire risk prevention and management in Member States as well as for cross-border and transnational cooperation in this area. Under the ‘Climate change adaptation action’, the LIFE programme provides grants for best practice, pilot and demonstration projects on an effective wildfire management.

The European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS) is responsible for monitoring and assessing wildfire risks at European level. EFFIS is continuously being upgraded to provide the most up-to-date and reliable data on forest fires. Under the Copernicus programme, the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) uses near-real-time observations of the location and intensity of active wildfires to estimate the emissions of pollutants. This is done through its Global Fire Assimilation System (GFAS) and the Global Wildfire Information System (GWIS).

The main objective of the EU Solidarity Fund (EUSF) is to alleviate the financial pressure on national authorities by giving aid in the event of a major natural disaster. In 2017-2019, the EU Solidarity Fund supported various Member States, including Portugal and Spain, allocating EUR 54 million to deal with damages caused by wildfires in 2017. The EUSF is therefore a valuable and relevant resource in the event of extreme weather.

Last updated: 23 August 2023