Wildfires in Europe and all across the world are increasingly becoming a threat not only to people but also to the natural environment and all the benefits it offers to us. We have observed unprecedented volume of wildfires in not only the countries that face fire threats every year, but also in the countries like Sweden where these types of wildfires usually do not occur in such an extent.
What do we know about these wildfires? Do we have a solution to counter the challenge?
There are very clear and obvious impacts of climate change on fire risk and damages induced by forest fire. Dr. Marcus Lindner, Principal Scientist Natural Science of the European Forest Institute outlines the interrelation between the wildfires and climate change:
The European Commission's Joint Research Centre published a technical report entitled 'Forest Fires in Europe, Middle East and North Africa 2017' which states:
"[A] clear trend towards longer fire seasons compared to previous years, with fires now occurring well beyond the dry and hot summer months (July- September). In 2017, the most critical months were June and October, when deadly fires swept through Portugal and Northern Spain. (...) The Mediterranean region remains the most affected area. However, unusually dry summers in central and northern Europe have recently led to large fires in countries such as Sweden, Germany and Poland, which have historically seen very few." [Source: JRC Technical Report]
Alex Held, our fire expert from the EFI's Resilience Research Programme also explains today’s wildfires in detail:
Disastrous wildfires have happened in history long before science had any idea of climate change. But these disaster fires were not all too common; they were rather exceptions. With the effects of global and climate change today, we see that the frequency and intensity of unwanted fires is rising. We need to understand that climate change is not a scenario any more as extreme weather events have already become a reality. Fire seasons are longer, drier, hotter and also visible in places where there used to be no expansive fires.
I prefer to talk about global change instead of climate change, like how John Reilly from MIT Joint Program explained during one of the Lookout360 Accelerator’s mentorship sessions. As our societies transform, our attitudes and behaviour change too- land use has changed due to economic and societal interests and with the weather, we get a more fire-prone environment. For me, it is an important point to explain that climate change alone does not necessarily result in disaster fires, but changes in various areas of society along with environmental change can manifest in the bigger, longer and more uncontrollable fires we witness today.
Wildfires are nothing new, but where and how these fires happen is becoming a huge problem in today’s society. So, what can we do to counter these wildfires?
In a nutshell, these wildfires can be dealt with better if the land is managed in a way to prevent and mitigate these fires. Fires are managed by suppressing them; approximately 90% of today’s wildfire budgets go to the 'suppression' measures like water-bombing aircraft. But if we move away from this short term approach and manage the forests better, many of these wildfires can be prevented and their effects mitigated. In this way, the response becomes more efficient, safer and cheaper.
Among recent articles, the following examples went beyond the cause and impacts of fires, to focus on solutions:
Alex shares his insights about the solution we need to counter the issue:
We need a change of paradigm in managing fires. Fire suppression is now tried and tested over decades in the US, Canada, Africa, Australia and Europe, but that does not work anymore as every other factor including our climate is changing. The new focus must address the other phases of crisis management that rather focus on prevention and mitigation. We need a new way to manage the crisis through better land and forest management to ensure to retain resilient landscapes. The United Nations Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reductions also signifies the importance of a long-term approach to disasters, putting a focus on prevention and mitigation. It is high time that we saw governments investing in sound land management practices that include adequate fire management. Not just more aircraft.
So, what can media do to address the issues around the wildfires we are facing today?
Alex states, “media, understandably, cover stories they can sell, that are timely and portrait the devastation and human tragedies. But we rarely see coverage on how we can ‘solve’ these issues. As someone working in a forest science organisation, I always hoped to see more solution stories about how to better manage the land and forests so that the fires could be contained safely.”
Alex Held has been featured in various international media’s stories about wildfires in Sweden and Greece this year. If you are a journalist who would like to understand the fires in Europe, you can contact Alex at alexander.held[AT]efi.int
If you would like to get scientific insights on climate change impacts on forests, you can contact Marcus at marcus.lindner[AT]efi.int
Principle Scientist, Resilience Programme, European Forest Institute
Dr. Marcus Lindner holds a degree in forest sciences from University of Freiburg and a PhD in Geoecology from University of Potsdam in Germany. He has 25 years of experience in research on climate change impacts, adaptation and mitigation strategies in forest management, forest sector sustainability, forest resource assessments and ecosystem service provisioning from European forests. For his researches, see this link.
Senior Expert, EFI Resilience Programme
Alexander Held holds MSc in Forest Science from Freiburg University, Germany. He started as a fire ecologist at the Fire Ecology working group of the Max-Planck Society, got a number of operational qualifications in the US and South Africa. He moved from fire ecology to fire management and worked with the Global Fire Monitoring Center GFMC in Europe and southern Africa. Later, Alex worked with the South African Working on Fire Program, from its early beginnings till 2012, when he joined the European Forest Institute EFI.
At the EFI, Alex works on the establishment of the European Forest Risk Facility, where the exchange of expertise and knowledge, mutual assistance and cooperation in Europe is the tool to create more resilient landscapes. His expertise is in risk fire, silviculture and deer management.