Climate fuelling forest fire threat – EFFIS

Experts have said that Europe the Middle East and North Africa are under rising risks of major forest fires after 2022 was the second worst since records began.

New data from the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS) highlighted in 2022, nearly 900 000 hectares a land burnt in the EU.

The study, Forest Fires in Europe, Middle East and North Africa 2022, published by the Commission’s Joint Research Centre, said the expanse of last year’s fires corresponds to roughly the size of Corsica. Since monitoring through the EFFIS started in 2000, 2022 is the second-worst year – the worst being 2017 with 1.3 million hectares of burnt land.

“For a third year in a row, unprecedented wildfire events cause large environmental and economic damage in the EU and tragic loss of life,” The report stated. “While most of the fires (96%) are caused by human actions, they are aggravated by increased fire danger conditions driven by climate change.”

Fires also impacted Natura 2000 sites, the EU’s biodiversity reservoir, accounting for about 43% of the total burnt area (approximately 365 000 ha out of the 900 000 ha burnt). The total burnt land in Natura 2000 protected areas in 2022 is the highest in a decade, according to the report.

“It is a warning signal of what global warming can bring about in the coming years, as temperatures increase, and droughts become more pronounced in many European countries,” a spokesperson said. “Thanks to prevention measures put in place by the EU and its Member States and the enhanced preparedness and firefighting operations of the fire management services, the number of casualties in 2022 was contained.

“Prevention measures must target all sectors of the population, including rural actors in direct contact with natural areas, as well as the enlarged population segment that lives in the so-called wildland urban interface (WUI), where built settlements are either inside or adjacent to wildland vegetation. Most of the fires occur in the WUI, as they are set by human actions, and simultaneously most affect this population in areas at high risk of wildfires.”

Data for 2023 shows that so far, wildfires have already burned about 500 000 ha of natural land in the EU. This includes the largest single wildfire (Alexandroupolis, Greece) recorded in the EU, with over 96 000 ha burnt.

“This year saw again rampant wildfires, difficult to contain by traditional firefighting for their high temperatures, intensity and speed,” added the spokesperson. “They were put under control only when meteorological conditions improved, allowing firefighters to tackle the blazes. Other critical wildfires in the EU occurred in Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece.”

The report added in the last three years, wildfires raged from west to east and across northern, central and southern European countries. The high frequency and intensity of wildfires in the summer puts EU’s fighting services under unprecedented conditions of fire danger in which, often, aerial firefighting loses its effectiveness and ground firefighting is difficult or impossible. The trend of these unprecedented fires occurs not only in Europe, but also across the globe.

The publication of the report takes place in the context of the presentation, by the Commission, of a Forest Monitoring Law that it said will “plug existing gaps in the information on European forests and create a comprehensive forest knowledge base”.

“For a third year in a row, unprecedented wildfire events cause large environmental and economic damage in the EU and tragic loss of life,” The report stated. “While most of the fires (96%) are caused by human actions, they are aggravated by increased fire danger conditions driven by climate change.”

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