It was recorded that 2017 was one of the worst years for wildfires in Europe, with over 800,000 hectares of land burnt in Portugal, Italy and Spain alone and now, wildfires are set to increase.
As the world is getting warmer, land in Europe is getting drier. Wildfires are set to increase for all areas and not just the hottest countries around the Mediterranean. Areas in the Alpine mountain regions will also see an increase in fire danger unless action is taken, the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) says, and that limiting climate change and reducing the main causes for wildfires is critical.
The warnings surrounding the facts that wildfires are set to increase come from a JRC study entitled ‘Forest fire danger extremes in Europe under climate change’, which compares two scenarios – one in which global warming is limited to 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and the other a high green house gas emissions scenario – both assess the patterns of danger up to the end of the century.
Climate change factor
The effect of climate change on rainfall, wind, temperature and humidity will cause countries to become drier. Extreme whether events such as droughts could leave areas susceptible to wildfires as warmer temperatures will cause moisture to be drawn from deep layers of wood, soil and other types of organic matter, leaving them dryer than usual.
One way to prevent wildfires and other extreme weather spiralling out of control would be to successfully limit global warming. However, danger levels are set to increase even with the most optimistic climate scenarios.
What can be done to reduce the risk of wildfires?
The JRC study identifies three factors that could potentially reduce the risk of wildfires:
- Human activity – it has been confirmed by data from the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS) that almost all forest fires in Europe were due to human activity. Reducing this factor involves increase awareness of fire danger and exploring the cause: why did people start the fires?
- Vegetation management – minimising the fire risk in dry forests and reducing the likelihood of fires. Each forest ecosystem, however, needs measures to be adapted for their specific system; and
- Sustainability – managed forests often have less tree density, making them less prone to wildfires than forests that are unmanaged. Careful landscape design is the main factor to a well-adapted forest composition that ensures sustainable, less fire-prone forests.
The JRC study argues that along with these factors, policymakers should look at wildfires as a natural hazard and consider designing defensible space from a social and policy perspective.
The European Commission has moved forward with a number of initiatives to further increase EU civil protection capacity and to enhance disaster prevention, readiness and response across Europe.
de Rigo, D., Libertà, G., Houston Durrant, T., Artés Vivancos, T., San-Miguel-Ayanz, J., 2017. Forest fire danger extremes in Europe under climate change: variability and uncertainty. Publication Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, 71 pp. ISBN:978-92-79-77046-3 , https://doi.org/10.2760/13180
Further reading (mentioned relevant publications on drought-resistant/fire-resilient tree species and ecosystems ; and to the parallel differing effect of climate change on the habitat suitability for these trees)
San-Miguel-Ayanz, J., de Rigo, D., Caudullo, G., Houston Durrant, T., Mauri, A. (Eds.), 2016. European atlas of forest tree species. Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg. ISBN:978-92-79-36740-3, https://doi.org/10.2788/4251
de Rigo, D., Caudullo, G., San-Miguel-Ayanz, J., Barredo, J. I., 2017. Robust modelling of the impacts of climate change on the habitat suitability of forest tree species. Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg. ISBN:978-92-79-66704-6, https://doi.org/10.2760/296501