Europe fire risk rises with heatwaves and drought

Europe fire risk rises with heatwaves and drought

MADRID (AP) – Prolonged drought conditions in several Mediterranean countries, a heat wave last week that hit northern Germany and the high costs of fuel for aircraft needed to fight forest fires have raised concerns across Europe this summer. summer.

And it’s only June.

“Much of the continent is in drought,” said Cathelijne Stoof, a professor of environmental science at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, who called the prospect of wildfires “very challenging across Europe.”

Fires last summer blackened more than 11,000 square kilometers (4,250 square miles) of land — an area four times the size of Luxembourg. About half of the damage was in the European Union.

And, experts say, wildfires in Europe aren’t just a problem for the warmer southern countries.

“What scientists are warning us is that (the fires) are obviously going to the north and in countries like the UK, in countries like Germany and in the Scandinavian countries, in the future we need to wait for wildfires to happen more frequently. frequency,” he said. said Catherine Gamper, an expert on climate change adaptation at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Wildfires across Spain have destroyed tens of thousands of acres of wooded land, though a recent sharp drop in temperatures is helping firefighters contain them.

Spain’s troubles began with the arrival in spring of the first heat wave in two decades. Temperatures as high as those typically recorded in August rose above 40 C (104 F) in many Spanish cities.

Neighboring Portugal also had its hottest May in nine decades, with France the warmest on record.

“As a result of climate change, heat waves are starting earlier and are becoming more frequent and more severe because of record concentrations of heat-trapping greenhouse gases,” the World Meteorological Organization said last week.

“What we are witnessing today is an anticipation of the future.”

Despite extensive planning, early warning surveillance and predictive models, wildfire preparedness remains a major challenge. The EU is expanding a shared pool of standby planes and helicopters this summer to provide cross-border support and is expected to partner with more nations outside the bloc.

“It is very difficult to predict forest fires,” said Marta Arbinolo, an OECD policy analyst and an expert on climate adaptation and resilience.

“We know that the summer (of) 2022 is predicted by weather forecasts to be particularly hot and dry, possibly even longer than 2020 or 21, which was the driest and hottest summer in Europe,” she said. the risk of forest fires in Europe during the summer can be very high.”

In Greece, which suffered from some of Europe’s most devastating fires last August, officials say higher fuel costs have added to the challenges faced by the fire department, which relies heavily on water-dropping planes to fight blazes in the mountainous country. .

Greece will start using fire-retardant chemicals in water droplets this year, while the EU is sending more than 200 firefighters and equipment from France, Germany and four other countries to Greece to stay over the summer.

Wildfire seasons are also getting longer.

“The concept of a fire season is losing its meaning now. We have fire season all year round,” said Victor Resco de Dios, a professor of forestry engineering at the University of Lleida, in Spain’s northeastern Catalonia region, which has been hit hard by the summer fires.

“The main changes we are seeing with climate change are a longer duration of fire seasons.”

Laura Vilagra, a senior Catalan government official, told a regional conference that fire prevention measures this season could include closing parks.

“The weather every year is more adverse, and the drought is very evident this year,” she said. “We are expecting a very complicated summer.”

Resco predicts a bleak future in Spain, arguing that areas currently affected by fires “will likely not experience many fires until the turn of the century. Because? Because forests would be very scarce. There would be nothing left to burn.”

Other experts are not so gloomy.

OECD’s Gamper and Arbinolo point out that some of the worst fires have brought positive developments, such as the EU’s Civil Protection Mechanism, which facilitates rapid cooperation between countries in emergency situations. European countries, they argue, are also opening up to incorporating risk reduction into their planning, rather than simply increasing their firefighting capabilities.

“The core is the need for integrated fire management, attention to fires year round, not just when it’s dry, and investment in landscape management,” said Stoof.

Gamper appealed to two things she said would have a big impact. First, reconsider urban planning by not building near extreme risk forests.

“I think our first type of appeal to countries is to really think about where you continue to settle,” Gamper said.

“Second, enforce your regulations. Countries know what to do.”


Derek Gatopoulos reported from Athens, Greece. Hernan Muñoz Ratto contributed to this report from Barcelona, ​​Spain.


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