Fires sweep a sweltering Europe. How is the EU fighting back?

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The scenes of wildfires in European countries this season have been dramatic. In all, wildfires larger than 30 hectares (74 acres) have burned more than 2,300 square miles of land in the European Union this year. And the fire season doesn’t end until October.

But the EU is marshaling its resources to push back. While forest fire prevention and response is a national responsibility, the EU budget does carve out €893 million ($920 million) for supplemental support.

Why We Wrote This

Like the United States, Europe is facing increasingly fierce wildfire seasons, endangering lives, land, and livelihoods. But the European Union is working on new ways to control the flames.

And within RescEU, the bloc’s disaster emergency response and civil protection resource pool, the EU has assembled a fleet of 12 firefighting airplanes and one helicopter for peak forest fire season. RescEU services have already seen action this year in Albania, Portugal, France, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic.

The EU also uses satellite data from the Copernicus Earth observation program to analyze wildfires in the bloc and beyond. It evaluates forest fire risk and maps burned areas. This helps preemptive efforts and speeds up firefighting response.

Europe, like the United States, is also opening to the idea that allowing forests to burn naturally – or even setting preemptive burns on purpose – can help prevent mega-fires, especially at a time when models supported by satellite imagery and artificial intelligence provide fairly reliable predictions of fire conduct.

July was ablaze in Europe. This summer’s wildfires nearly engulfed a train traveling between Galicia and Madrid in Spain, creating panic among passengers. Rapid, high flames overtook and killed an older couple fleeing in their car in Portugal. On Aug. 7, on the Adriatic island of Hvar, a Croatian man died protecting his house. Forest fires also forced thousands to flee their homes in southern France.

The wildfires the Continent has experienced this season are not its deadliest, but the scenes have been dramatic. In all, wildfires larger than 30 hectares (74 acres) have burned more than 2,300 square miles of land in the European Union this year. “This is the second-highest annual total since 2006,” says Daniel Puglisi, press officer of the EU commission for crisis management and humanitarian aid. And the fire season doesn’t end until October.

Just how bad have wildfires been in Europe?

Why We Wrote This

Like the United States, Europe is facing increasingly fierce wildfire seasons, endangering lives, land, and livelihoods. But the European Union is working on new ways to control the flames.

The number of fires and burned areas has been record-breaking in many countries of the EU. Especially in southern Europe, the number of fires in 2022 significantly surpassed the annual average documented since 2006, the starting point for the data set of the European Forest Fire Information System.

As of early August, Romania has been the country with the most dramatic spike, registering more than 700 fires this year. Flames there consumed 580 square miles (0.6% of the country’s area) compared with an average of 55 square miles annually between 2006 and 2011. Spain, Italy, France, and Croatia have also seen an extreme rise in the number of fires, with the total burned area also representing a notable increase for all but Italy.

Portugal’s wildfires have proved severe enough this summer to prompt the declaration of a state of emergency – no doubt also spurred by memories of the devastating 2017 wildfires, which killed more than 100 people.

“What we’re seeing is a lot of large fires occurring simultaneously that are starting outside of what was the traditional fire season,” says Víctor Resco de Dios, professor of forestry engineering at the University of Lleida in Spain. “More than the number of fires, I think what’s remarkable is that a very large number of large fires are occurring simultaneously on a subcontinental scale.”

What is causing the fires?

The immediate triggers for forest and wildland fires have been kaleidoscopic.



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