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Wildfires: Is Europe doing enough to prevent them?

June 25, 2024

Europe faces more intense wildfires due to climate change, prompting the EU to expand its response. Experts stress the need for preventive actions and sustainable forest management.

Two fire fighters beside roaring orange flames
When higher temperatures dry out ground, wildfires can take hold and spread more easilyImage: AP/picture alliance

Last summer, flames devoured homes and olive groves as they raged uncontrollably for days in Greece, engulfing an area bigger than New York City and leaving white ash and mourning in their wake. 

It was the biggest fire ever recorded in Europe.

While wildfires are a natural annual occurrence, rising temperatures and intensified drought periods are creating drier, fire-prone weather that makes them burn faster, longer and more ferociously.

In Europe, as around the globe, they are becoming more frequent, intense and widespread. In 2023 alone, they scorched an area around twice the size of Luxembourg, causing more than 4 billion ($4.3 billion) in damages and releasing 20 megatons of climate-heating CO2 emissions into the air equivalent to nearly a third of all annual emissions from international aviation in the EU.

But with rising temperatures expected to increase the risk of wildfires across Europe, is the continent prepared?

Europe is expanding fire response

"Forest fires are getting more and more significant," said Balazs Ujvari, a spokesperson for the European Commission. "More and more we find situations where member states are not able to cope."

The focus of the EU's fire response so far has been the expansion of firefighting capabilities through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism and RescEU program, which lend support to countries dealing with extreme wildfires.

Last year, its fleet of planes, helicopters and firefighters doubled in size, with the fire in Greece mobilizing the biggest EU aerial response operation to date.

Ahead of this year's fire season Ujvari said they have 28 planes, four helicopters and 556 firefighters stationed across four fire-prone countries. A further 600 million has been allocated to further expanding the fleet by the end of the decade.

Ujvari added that the EU can also provide images of affected areas from its Copernicus satellite system to help local authorities monitor and tackle blazes.

A firefighter aircraft drops water in a wildfire near Bustelo, east of Amarante, north of Portugal
Central and northern European countries have experienced more wildfires in recent yearsImage: Patricia de Melo Moreira/AFP

Firefighting alone isn't enough

Yet some scientists and policy experts argue the EU could do more to prevent fires starting in the first place.

Around 90% of EU funding for tackling wildfires goes into response, and only 10% into prevention, according to one estimate from German EU lawmaker Anna Deparnay-Grunenberg.

The occurrence of fires that are extremely difficult to bring under control such as those during Portugal's 2017 wildfire season that burned a total of 500,000 hectares and claimed over 100 lives highlight the limits of prioritizing fire response, said Alexander Held, senior expert at the European Forest Institute.

"Science and experience tell us that to prevent these disaster fires, it's no use investing in fire suppression because they can't be suppressed. The only thing you can do is avoid them happening or ensure that they don't burn with intensities beyond the threshold of control," said Held.

To do this, the EU needs to push more land-based fire prevention and nature-based solutions, he said. "The more climate change we observe, the more we should actually invest in making the landscape less burnable."

Forest management needs to be ramped up

There are many methods available to establish more sustainable land management and increase the resilience of forests, explained Julia Bognar, head of the land use and climate program at the sustainability think tank Institute for European Environmental Policy.  

This includes thinning and spacing trees properly, and reducing floor vegetation through prescribed burning or introducing more grazing animals like cattle and goats that eat the dry shrubs, which act as fuel and help a fire to spread.

Eucalyptus plantations
Forest fires can spread quickly across monocultures, such as eucalyptus plantationsImage: Laurent Guerinaud/UIG/IMAGO

Shifting away from monocultures, such as the eucalyptus plantations that ignited during Portugal's severe 2017 fires, would also make forests more resilient.

"With more diversity of trees and older growth trees, they have a better capacity for storing water and preventing drought," said Bognar.

Approaches need to be tailored to the climates of individual countries, said Held, explaining in hotter places like southern Spain it would involve prescribed burning while the weather is mild and establishing a mosaic of different land use, including grazed land that keeps the biomass which turns into fuel when it is dry and hot at a low level.

"Here [in Central Europe] resilience means promoting broad-leaved forest, mixed forest, shady and wet forests," said Held, adding that technical measures like fire breaks or fuel buffer zones with reduced fuel out along routes in the forest would also help. He added encouraging more people back into rural areas to manage the land to engage in practices such as organic farming or continuous cover forestry is also key.

More coordination and long-term solutions needed  

There is an increasing amount of fire prevention best practice being shared in Europe, said Bognar. This includes guidelines for sustainable forest management published by the European Commission in 2023. "But there's not necessarily a concerted effort at the EU level to be pressing for these types of changes… so it's really inconsistent across the EU," she said.

Bognar said rethinking the EU approach to rising wildfire threats needs to include more long-term solutions, such as pushing through the proposed Forest Monitoring Framework which would give a clearer picture of Europe's forests and implementing the Nature Restoration Law which, despite being watered down and facing resistance from some member states, aims to support fire resilience by increasing forest biodiversity.

A man hugs his son in front a a firetruck as they watch smoke rising from a wildfire
Increasing forest resilience could help prevent intense wildfiresImage: Alexandros Avramidis/REUTERS

While wildfire experts have long lamented how much more financial support there is for firefighting, there are some funds that can be used for prevention, said Held. But he explained there is too little understanding and coordination in how to access this support, and a lack of solid wildfire prevention strategy at the national level.  

One notable exception to this, he said, is Portugal.  

Since its devastating 2017 fires, the country has shifted its approach to emphasize forest management, including promoting the plantation of native fire-adapted species as well as fuel breaks artificial areas with less vegetation that act as barriers to stop or slow down fires and buffer zones around new and existing buildings in risk areas. France has also made changes, introducing legislation last year cracking down on landowners that fail to clear their forests of undergrowth. 

But Jesus San-Miguel, senior researcher at the European Commission Joint Research Centre, said a key barrier on the continent is that the European Commission can only give advice and support. Ultimately, it's member states that are responsible for forest management and fire prevention. 

"Prevention is a slow process, it is less visible than firefighting," said San-Miguel. "So, when you have many planes fighting, they seem to be really doing a lot but prevention should be prioritized. Because it is so much cheaper."   

Edited by: Tamsin Walker 


EU Joint Research Centre information on 2023 wildfires 

European Commission information on rescEU

Taming Wildfires in the Context of Climate Change, OECD report

Holly Young Holly Young is a climate reporter on DW’s Environment desk based in Berlin, Germany.@holly_young88