When it comes to wildfires it seems that, yet again, every year is a drastic year. Especially in the Mediterranean region, there is an ongoing concern in the summer season about wildfires and their impacts both within the European Union (EU) and its neighboring countries. In response, the EU has devised a collaboration that can be deployed across its member states and externally in the Middle East and North Africa from where disasters could significantly impact one or more of the EU member states and their citizens.
Areas at risk
According to a spokesperson for the European Commission (EC), in the pan-European territory, the primary areas at risk of suffering from major wildfires continue to be the countries in the Mediterranean region: “The levels and the frequency of extreme fire danger in this area will continue to be much higher than those in central and northern Europe. However, climate change is also expanding the areas under wildfire risk. Therefore, we can expect that central and northern Europe will experience higher levels of fire risk as well as increased fire activity.”
Indeed, wildfires not only affect EU countries but impact hard on some of the neighboring countries in the Mediterranean region, causing large numbers of human casualties and damage. Wildfires raging from west to east and across northern, central, and southern European countries offer clear evidence of the effects of climate change. The result is not only the expansion of the affected areas, but the longer duration of the fire season, according to the Joint Research Centre (JRC) in a 2022 technical report entitled ‘Forest Fires in Europe, Middle East and North Africa 2021’: “The [fire season] now extends beyond the traditional summer months. Furthermore, the high frequency and intensity of wildfires in the summer puts our firefighting services under unprecedented conditions of fire danger, with aerial firefighting often losing its effectiveness, and ground firefighting difficult or impossible. The trend of these unprecedented fires occurs not only in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, but across the globe, as in California, Australia, South America etc. It is thus essential, along with enhancing preparedness and response capacities, to prepare our population through education and awareness-raising campaigns to live with wildfires, as they become more frequent and intense because of climate change.”
According to the JRC, increasing fire-suppression capacities is necessary. However, this will not be sufficient without, at the same time, increasing efforts to prevent fire from igniting in the first place. There is a need for an integrated wildfire risk management approach and a close collaboration between institutions and wildfire management services and civil protection authorities.
Exchange of good practices and experiences, and information-sharing on wildfires is essential for a coordinated approach to wildfire risk management
“Exchange of good practices and experiences, and information-sharing on wildfires is essential for a coordinated approach to wildfire risk management. These exchanges are facilitated by mechanisms such as the Expert Group on Forest Fires, the Expert Groups under the EU Civil Protection Mechanism, and the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS). These mechanisms, coordinated by the Directorate General for Environment, the Directorate General for Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations, and the JRC, respectively, could be put to further use: only through better information and stronger cooperation across the EU will it be possible to tackle the growing threat of wildfires and their potentially devastating effects because of climate change,” affirmed the JRC.
The EU Civil Protection Mechanism, with its rescEU fleet of aerial firefighting capacities, primarily intervenes in EU member states when a request for assistance is received. “However, it is important to note that any country worldwide can make such a request through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism when battling disasters. Member states can respond to these requests by deploying their national firefighting capacities or those committed to the voluntary European Civil Protection Pool,” said the EC spokesperson. “Regarding rescEU assets, they can also be deployed outside the European Union if the disaster could significantly impact one or more member states or their citizens. For instance, in 2019, Lebanon requested assistance through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism when facing a wildfire situation. The rescEU reserve assets were ready to be sent to Lebanon to tackle the wildfire, but unfortunately, they were not mobilized due to adverse weather conditions. There have, nevertheless, been successful instances of EU response to wildfires in the greater Middle East region. For example, on 26 July 2023, two light planes from the rescEU reserve, stationed in Spain, were promptly deployed to northwest Tunisia to provide much-needed support in fighting the wildfires.”
The EU Civil Protection Mechanism primarily intervenes in EU member states when a request for assistance is received
In terms of extending international collaborations, it is also important to mention that the EFFIS Danger Forecast, which was developed to support the Commission’s Directorate General for the Environment and the forest firefighting services in the EU member states, has run continuously throughout the year without interruption from 2008, and its geographic extent has been enlarged over the years. From the initial extent that covered only the Mediterranean region, now the system covers the whole of Europe and countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
Evolving firefighting air assets
The EC believes that, first and foremost, civil protection remains primarily the responsibility of individual member states, with the EU providing supporting competence in that domain. “The EC actively encourages member states to increase investments in their national civil protection assets,” the EC spokesperson said.
Given that the availability of medium amphibious firefighting airplanes is scarce, the transitional fleet for this summer is composed of a mix of light amphibious planes with middle and heavy firefighting helicopters
“Given the growing concern of wildfires as a pan-European issue, the EU Civil Protection Mechanism has taken significant steps to address this problem. Notably, it has doubled its transitional fleet of firefighting aircraft to tackle wildfires during the summer season, to be on standby and ready to assist upon request. Given that the availability of medium amphibious firefighting airplanes is scarce, the transitional fleet for this summer is composed of a mix of light amphibious planes with middle and heavy firefighting helicopters.”
The development of governmental or state contracts and fleets in response to more severe fire seasons is primarily within the competence of individual member states, observed the EC spokesperson. They stated: “However, the EC actively encourages member states to make investments in their national civil protection assets, especially in light of the increasing severity of fire seasons.”
They added: “To address the growing challenges posed by wildfires, some member states have taken steps to procure additional firefighting assets. This move is aimed at enhancing their firefighting capabilities and improving preparedness to tackle wildfires more effectively.”
In addition to the transitional fleet of the rescEU reserve, the EC is collaborating closely with six member states (Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Croatia and Greece) to establish a permanent rescEU fleet of 12 firefighting aircraft, along with financing for new helicopters. “On top of these 12 rescEU aircraft, the negotiation encompasses the purchase as well by two member states of 10 additional aircraft to be used for national purposes. Negotiations with the manufacturers of these assets are in their final stages, and upon contract signatures, the assets are expected to become progressively operational, starting in 2027,” said the EC spokesperson.
They concluded: “Through the creation of this permanent rescEU fleet, the EU aims to bolster its firefighting capabilities, ensuring a more resilient response to wildfires and other emergencies across the continent. This initiative underscores the commitment of the EU and its member states to work together in combating wildfires and strengthening their capacity to address the challenges posed by severe fire seasons.”