After devastating fire season in Europe, experts call for new approach to protect forests

Scenes from this summer’s devastating forest fires in southern Europe reverberated around the world. Acres of olive groves reduced to charcoal. Dead and burnt cattle in blackened fields.

“I am ruined”, a shepherd from Sardinia in Italy told RAI, the country’s public broadcaster. “Everything I own has burned down. Everything.”

On the Greek island of Evia, thousands of residents were forced to flee by boat that the flames drove them to the water. Having finally consumed more than 1,000 square kilometers, it was the “biggest fire in the history of Greece”, according to Demetres Karvallas, director of WWF Greece.

The summer of 2021 will be remembered as one of the worst forest fire seasons in Europe on record, with more than 350,000 hectares – and counting – burned in Italy, Greece and Spain, almost three times the average of the last decade.

Temperature records have been broken in southern Europe, and the large simultaneous fires tested the ability of European authorities to coordinate.

“It affects the whole Mediterranean, from east to west,” said Marc Castellnou, fire chief and forest fire expert in the Spanish region of Catalonia. “It doesn’t matter how much resources you have. The fire… will invade you.”

The fires have sparked a discussion among EU officials over whether emergency services are prepared, after decades of austerity, for the consequences of climate change.

The fire on the island of Evia this summer consumed more than 1,000 square kilometers and was “the largest blaze in Greek history,” according to WWF Greece. (Milos Bicanski / Getty Images)

But fire experts warn that Europe needs more than investing in new planes and helicopters. They say European governments and citizens need to rethink their relationship to landscape or deal with increasingly serious fires.

“They should recognize that it is in their own best interests to manage the land in a way that is … less sensitive to fire,” said Johann Goldammer, founding director of the Global Fire Watch Center. Max Planck Institute in Germany. “If they don’t, they will always run after the problem.”

The challenges of austerity

In Greece, where forest fires have killed two and thousands of people lost their homes, the toll in recent weeks has squarely focused on a government that slashed civil protection budgets in the name of austerity, while spending more on the police and the military.

During his diplomatic stalemate with Turkey in the summer of 2020, Greece paid more than 4 billion euros in the military, an amount that has increased by more than 50 percent this year. But when the Forestry Authority asked for 17.7 million euros (about 26.3 million Canadian dollars) for fire prevention in November, it only received 1.7 million euros (about 2, $ 5 million).

The reduced firefighting budgets following the 2008 financial crisis, meanwhile, are still 20% less than they were before austerity.

“There is at least a 20 percent shortage of human strength,” said Pablo Sanchez, spokesperson for the European Civil Service Unions, a trade union group representing European firefighters.

People watch columns of smoke rise from a forest fire in the Sierra Bermeja mountain range in Malaga province, Spain, in September. (Jorge Guerrero / AFP via Getty Images)

“If you face a fire that calls for 100 people and you have 60, you end up cutting corners,” Sanchez said. “This is what happened with the evacuations.”

Unable to contain the fires and marked by a 2018 wildfire season that saw more than 100 killed in the seaside resort of Mati, Greek authorities instead opted for massive evacuations, which left entire communities exposed to destruction, with wildfires free to expand.

“The state is absent,” a villager told an AFP journalist during the August fires. “And in the winter, we’ll drown from the floods without the forests that protected us.”

Greek anger at the political response has prompted an apology from Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, increased investment in firefighting technology and the creation of a new climate ministry tasked with preventing future disasters.

But even in countries with many well-equipped firefighters, rescue workers are struggling to cope with fires that seem to get worse every year.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis is seen visiting the Greek island of Evia during wildfires in August 2019. Mitsotakis apologized last month for his government’s lackluster response to the current fire season in Forest. (Angelos Tzortzinis / AFP via Getty Images)

“The root of the problem”

Mauro Giulianella, who represents thousands of Italian firefighters as director with his largest public sector union, FP-CGIL, recalled driving all night from Sicily to Rome after the worst forest fires, seeing the bright lights of small fires rekindle as they go along.

“It was just very depressing,” he said in Italian.

The FP-CGIL calls for the creation of a national firefighting force to help rural areas and for increased investment in fire prevention.

Italy normally has sufficient resources to handle a busy fire season, according to Goldammer. But this year was different. According to one estimate, Italy experienced as many as 1,000 new fires per day at its peak.

The driving force behind this increase is a demographic change that has been going on in Europe for more than a generation.

“We are not addressing the root of the problem,” Castellnou said. “Our society is becoming an urban society.

“The younger generation is leaving the countryside,” Goldammer said.

A Canadair plane drops water on a fire in the Monte Catillo nature reserve in Tivoli, Italy on August 13, 2021. (Alberto Pizzoli / AFP via Getty Images)

As a result, he said, land that was once intensively cultivated and occupied is being abandoned and reclaimed by new, fast-growing forests that fuel larger fires, Goldammer said. In Greece, forest cover has actually increased, despite successive devastating fire seasons.

“People used [to use] every wooden stick for cooking and heating, and that was abandoned, ”he said. “A forest fire today finds so much fuel that was not available historically. “

Worse, centuries-old land management techniques, like the controlled burning of brush when clearing fields for agriculture, have become incredibly dangerous as heat waves dry out the countryside.

The sprawl of suburbs in major European cities has also led to more people living in forests, increasing the risk of starting a fire.

These trends are strongest in the Mediterranean, but climate change means the higher temperatures that push them are moving north into central Europe, where uncontrolled forest fires could be even more devastating.

Alexander Held, a fire prediction expert at the European Forest Institute, said under these circumstances, Central Europe could see “Canadian-style” fires that burn for days and cover thousands of acres. .

Experts say if the land is not better managed, climate change is likely to lead to more intense forest fires in northern Europe, which could be even more severe than those seen in the Mediterranean this summer, like this one near Athens, Greece. (Alkis Konstantinidis / Reuters)

“If it were to [happen], the behavior of the fire would be even more extreme than in Greece or Spain “, he declared.

Find a solution

Fire experts like Goldammer, Held and Castellnou have known for decades how to prevent these megafires – through controlled burns, openings of fire and other techniques that limit their fuel and tame their movement.

But buying firefighting planes and helicopters is not only more popular for governments facing angry and devastated public, it is also much easier.

“To deploy fire prevention at the landscape level, you need resources,” Held said, “[and] you need political support. “

Most forest land in Europe is privately owned in small plots, and most is owned by owners who do not live there. While most landowners will gladly welcome a team of firefighters to save their forest from forest fires, controlled burning when there is no apparent danger is another story.

“It’s like a vaccine. A small fire is a vaccine for the biggest fire,” Castellnou said. “[And] we act like an anti-vaccine company. We don’t want fire to hit our forest. “

Even where burning is permitted, there remains the problem of an unmanaged rural landscape. Goldammer says governments will likely have to introduce new financial incentives to encourage people to volunteer for land management programs as well as to repopulate the countryside.

“A government cannot achieve this during an election period,” he said, which is why it is “of very limited appeal” to any administration.

Firefighters inspect the remains of a forest fire near Avila, Spain, in August. (Cesar Manso / AFP via Getty Images)

There are a few reasons to be optimistic. The European Union’s Post-COVID-19 Recovery and Resilience Fund is allocating huge sums of money to governments, especially for climate change mitigation.

“The money is now available,” Karvallas said with the Greek WWF. But “there are big, big challenges to move it in the right direction.”

Held is still pessimistic. The European bureaucracy is too complex for most small landowners, and political leadership is lacking, at least for the time being.

“I don’t see the pain being strong enough,” he said. “It’s always a more comfortable decision… to keep doing what we’re doing, and eventually have a disaster – but only for a few weeks.”

One thing is certain: Europeans’ tolerance for worsening fire seasons is diminishing and governments are increasingly aware that they cannot overcome fires forever.

“If you really want to overcome… these extreme conditions that we’ve seen in Greece, Italy and Spain,” Held said, land management “is the only recipe”.

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