Europe has been battling wildfires this summer following a series of heatwaves, with over 596,000 hectares (2,303 square miles) already scorched across Europe as of the 30 July 2022, up from an average of 132,910 hectares (513 square miles) in previous years, according to EFFIS - Statistics Portal (europa.eu).
The Mediterranean has been hit especially hard, but France has also seen an unprecedented increase in devastation this year, suffering 46,365 hectares (179 square miles) of burned land over a cumulative 240 fires, up from 7,060 hectares (27.2 square miles) over 47 miles respectively. The question is whether Europe ready for its own ‘Black Summer’ – and with the threat of climate change making this the rule rather than the exception, what can be done?
Climate change is increasing the likelihood of wildfires
With experts deeming the large fires suffered in July by France and Portugal extremely unusual, climate change is the likely cause of the tinderbox environment which birthed them. Hot and dry conditions assist both the spread and intensity of wildfires – making them burn for longer, fueled by moisture-deprived vegetation sat upon the forest floor.
Greece also experiences wildfires most years, and along with Portugal, has the infrastructure to cope with them. Both countries also receive emergency help from the European Union (EU) to tackle their blazes.
As seen in both Germany and the Czech Republic, hotter temperatures also mean that the frontier of the area at risk of wildfires is being pushed north.
In Slovenia, wildfires erupting on the border with Italy have subsequently set off unexploded World War One bombs. The human cost cannot be ignored as hundreds of people are evacuated from their homes to allow thousands of firefighters to address the blazes.
Greenhouse gas emissions have increased the planet’s by about 1.2°C since pre-industrial times, making heatwaves hotter and with atmospheric circulation also being a particular factor, particularly in Europe. The global 2015 Paris Agreement saw countries agree to cut emissions quickly enough to curb global warming to 2°C (but aim for 1.5°C in order to avoid the most catastrophic impacts) but neither goal is achievable under current polices.
America is no stranger to the challenges Europe now face, AirMed&Rescue spoke with Ryan Becker, Principal Consultant for Becker Support who specialize in wildland fire management and prevention, for his take on the events in Europe.
With the US having a vast amount of experience with wildfires, do you think Europe was ready?
“There's a striking difference between the evolving wildfire threats in North America (particularly the US) and Europe. Land use in the US is driven by law and policy that mostly dates to the post-Colonial ‘manifest destiny’ period of expansion, where the cultures that had adapted to climate cycles were eradicated or displaced and removed from land management activities, while new policy and practice emphasized land ownership and resource extraction. Europe, I speculate, has a relatively more continuous history of settlement and land use, where extraction and disaster management practices have been tested across cyclic climate variations,” Becker said.
He continued: “Why is this relevant to your question? Because in the US, our prevailing fire management policy is still heavily weighted towards preserving resources that we attach dollar values to, whether that's timber, grazing land, or communities that are new to the landscape and continue to be built without consideration for fire vulnerability. Regarding development, I do need to point out that while wildfire risk assessments in the US are now more common in the realm of building permitting and insurance, these assessments have little standardization and are often only designed to create some financial cushion against loss or enforce property-level building codes, rather than reduce community-level risk.”
There's a striking difference between the evolving wildfire threats in North America (particularly the US) and Europe
Support for European nations facing increased risks
Daniel Puglisi, Press Officer for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management/ Foreign Affairs and Security, European Commission, told AirMed&Rescue that as we all recognize, Europe’s wildfires are getting steadily worse and climate change is extending the forest fire season by several months, increasing the likelihood of more wildfire emergencies for European countries going forward. At the same time, the expansion of fire-areas has created new vulnerabilities for many member states, with a particular view to Czechia and Slovakia, but also France, Spain, Portugal and Albania who faced or are still affected by fires this season.
He continued: “In this context, it is important to note that the European Union’s (EU) role in civil protection is to strengthen cooperation between national civil protection systems of Member States and to support and complement their action to prevent, prepare for and respond to disasters. The EU competence, in this area, is a ‘supporting competence’. The Commission is not in the position to comment on the level of wildfire preparedness of EU Member States. Preparedness remains a responsibility of individual EU countries.”
Over the past year, the intensity of fires in some EU countries can bring national response capacities to a limit. This is why the EU Commission is providing a layer of protection when fires spiral out of control. Puglisi commented: “Via the EU Civil Protection Mechanism, the EU stands ready to assist and offers swift support.
Part of our response includes the EU’s forest fire emergency fleet under rescEU, ready to be deployed in times of critical emergencies and disasters.” The emergency fleet complements existing resources located on the ground and provides essential assistance to those living in the most vulnerable regions.
For the 2022 forest fire season, the EU’s forest fire emergency fleet consists of 13 aircraft, including 12 airplanes and one helicopter. It is strategically positioned throughout the EU in Croatia, France, Greece, Italy, Spain and Sweden, to tackle fires across all corners of the EU. “Already this summer we have mobilized this support to many EU countries,” he said.
“Additional firefighting planes are currently under production to gradually join the EU-fully financed rescEU fleet over time. By 2026, two EU-fully financed medium-sized firefighting planes will join the current rescEU fleet positioned in France. They come in addition to two new firefighting planes that were financed by the Commission in 2021 and which are positioned in Sweden. By the forest fire season in 2029, the rescEU fleet foresees to count 12 fully operational amphibious firefighting airplanes that will be located across the EU. Whereas these planes will belong to each hosting country they are 100 per cent EU funded and should be considered as an extra-national capacity that increase the overall number of aerial firefighting capacities on our continent.”
European nations as ready as they can be
AirMed&Rescue spoke to the EU’s Department for Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid about preparedness across the continent. An official from the Department responded:
“Countries are prepared according to their national evaluation of the forest fire risk, and it is difficult to be prepared to face the severe increase of wildfires we are witnessing over recent years, including this one. The season is not over yet, and we are facing a 250-per-cent increase in burnt area compared to the average since 2006. This only reminds us of the need to continue stepping up prevention, preparedness and response efforts to address wildfires as the scenarios for the future point to an increase of the risk in terms of intensity (more fires with more energy) and geographical spread, as seen this year.”
As we already know, each Member State is responsible for the investments in preparedness and response as regards its national assets (aerial) and tries as much as possible to prepare according to the wildfire risk in their country.
“As regards the European response,” continued the Department spokesperson, “the assets available this season where the ones agreed with Participating States (PS) at a technical level and that took into account the available budget under the Union Civil Protection Mechanism. The situation has proven that, in light of the acceleration of the risk and until the permanent European fleet named rescEU is set up and running, a reinforcement of the temporary fleet would be needed. The Commission and PS are currently working on this scenario. The permanent fleet composed of 23 aircraft should be available in 2030.”
Aerial assets within EU are already shared effectively as they have no formal borders to operate despite being based in different MS. They are deployed according to expressed needs and availability. As an example, Greek Canadairs were deployed to Portugal, Italian Canadairs in Germany or Fireboss airplanes based in Sweden were deployed in the Czech Republic, just to name some.
This year, 33 planes and eight helicopters have been deployed from EU countries to support countries requesting assistance at various times over the summer fire season.
When it comes to investing in aerial fire assets for the future, the Department told AirMed&Rescue: “Governments have already at their disposal several funding instruments ready to support their preparedness and response capabilities.
These include the Cohesion policy funds, the Common Agricultural policy funds or the Recovery and resilience facility funds (NGEU). MS are making use of these possibilities to not only boost preparedness (ex: Helicopters bought by Portugal, Civil Protection installations by Latvia etc) but also to increase prevention activities related to wildfires.”
Arista to supply six firefighting Black Hawks to Portugal
In a sign of ongoing investment by European governments, in September, Arista Aviation Services, an Alabama-based aircraft overhaul specialist, was awarded a contract to provide six firefighting-capable Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawks to the Portuguese Air Force (FAP). The company, which specializes in working with this type of helicopter, defeated rival bids from both Leonardo and Bell Helicopter to be awarded the contract.
The contract includes the delivery of six aircraft over the next three years, as well as the provision of five years of on-site maintenance and logistical support. Arista will also provide training for six pilots and 21 mechanics on behalf of the FAP.
The aircraft will offer a significant increase in the FAP’s aerial firefighting capabilities – according to the company, each Arista-modified Black Hawk will have the ability to transport 12 firefighters and over 750 gallons of water at a time.
“The Black Hawk has proven itself around the world as an extremely versatile airframe, and we are proud to offer our customers a wide variety of options to help ensure their mission success,” said Arista President Rich Enderle. “Our aerial firefighting configuration is highly successful in fighting US wildfires in California and other western states, and we are thrilled to be able to internationally introduce these lifesaving platforms to Portugal.”
What can Europe learn from other regions?
Becker argued that ‘thousands of years of continuous settlement’ have led to the European population being distributed in a way which already accounts for many of the disasters associated with seasonal changes and long-term droughts.
However: “What this summer's fires across Europe seem to be suggesting is that the geographic risk from wildfires across Europe might be fundamentally changing. Europe has not developed a wildland fire management infrastructure that is as standardized or as well-equipped and mobile as it is in the US, but I don't think there's much evidence that this was necessary for most of Europe in the past.”
By contrast, Becker says that the problems faced by the US is that it is ‘grappling with the reality that our last hundred years of practice battling wildfire to preserve economic resources is failing more often than it ever has before’. He argued that ‘until we change policy and practice to learn to live with fire, we are doomed to lose more battles in the future’.
What this summer's fires across Europe seem to be suggesting is that the geographic risk from wildfires across Europe might be fundamentally changing
“Conversely, Europe might be in the position where entire geographic regions that haven't faced threats from wildfires since the advent of human civilization are now riskier than they once were. So, to sum up, I would say that Europe probably wasn't prepared for this Black Summer. But on the flip side, Australia wasn't prepared for their Black Summer of 2019/2020, Canada wasn't prepared for its 2021 Western fire season, and the US continues to struggle with our formidable arsenal of firefighting resources being overwhelmed and outmanoeuvred by more intense, faster-growing wildfires happening every season,” he said.
Becker continues: “Heatwaves are one of many risk factors for wildfires. Europe's scientific community has a thorough understanding of wildfire science and excellent tools to support emergency services in making operational decisions. A ubiquitous problem with integrating science into operational decision-making is the gap in lived experience between scientist and first responder. This problem typically results in two bad outcomes: first, decision-support tools that can't produce information as quickly as it's needed, and second, poor curation of the information that's provided to the decision-maker, leading to distraction and confusion. What matters most in effective emergency-response needs are good prediction of the emergency (both before and during its existence) and good management of the resources available to deal with the emergency.
Since the scope and severity of the 2022 heatwaves across Europe have been unprecedented, the science behind the decision-support tools must rapidly be tested against reality to ensure predictions remain accurate under these new extremes. Then, most critically, decision-makers and scientists have to work together to create fast, easy-to-run decision-support tools that produce essential information needed to make critical decisions such as where and how many firefighting resources might be needed in areas of high fire danger; what communities and resources face the most immediate risk; what weather changes might affect the fire during its most dangerous times; and how effective specific attack strategies might be. The tool's interface and output must be refined and tested, and ongoing training must be planned and required for its end users.”
Outside of climate change, the human element cannot be ignored. From smaller rural populations unable to supply the manpower to clear dry vegetation ‘fuel’ to events such as the recent blast at the bomb storage site at Grunewald Forest in Berlin, forest management is also key. Europe is no exception when it comes to arson. France recently experienced a case involving a volunteer firefighter facing up to 15 years in prison after admitting responsibility for starting spate of wildfires in the country with a lighter.
We asked Ryan Becker for his take on malicious behavior. Becker adds: “Arson is a constant threat in wildland fire. Here in California, at least two men are on death row for starting fatal wildfires: the 2003 Old Fire and the 2006 Esperanza Fire. The National Wildfire Coordinating Group maintains standards and training for wildland fire origin and cause investigation and the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) also includes guidance for wildland fire investigations in its Fire Investigation Guide (NFPA 921). While the field of fire investigation in the US has seen vast improvements in recent decades, wildland fire investigators have often had fewer resources and research available in comparison to those investigating structure fires. The publicity that came with the Esperanza fire investigation, conviction and penalty might have been as much of a deterrent as could be conceived.”
Even with all the above considered, scientists state that without a significant reduction in greenhouse gases, extreme weather will continue to worsen, and with it the disruption and loss of life will only worsen, and this year’s fire season is just the beginning.