The extreme fire season of 2022 was a spyglass into the future that awaits under unabated climate change. Here we explain why current EU policies, implemented under the flag of the European Green Deal, will likely worsen the wildfire problem in Europe.
The EU must take its wildfire problem seriously. Wildfires are not only an ecological disturbance. They have become a threat to public safety with fatalities comparable to terrorism. In the last 13 years, the number of people killed by wildfires in southern Europe alone (473) has exceeded the number of fatalities in terrorist attacks (448) (1). In 2022, we have experienced an extreme fire season, where burned area exceeded the long-term median by a factor of 52 in some areas, such as Aquitaine in France (2). Furthermore, fires this year have expanded beyond the traditional “firebelt” of the southern EU countries, with high fire activity recorded in Hungary, Germany and Romania, to name a few (3). This northward expansion of fire activity is expected to continue under climate change and affect also mountainous areas (4). Some dire predictions indicate that 1.7 million hectares could burn in the Pyrenees within less than a week under projected future climate and weather conditions (5). This will bring about major health problems from smoke pollution, and it threatens to reduce current carbon sinks, potentially amplifying global warming (6).
The European Green Deal (EGD) could be an effective policy tool towards curbing the increasing fire problem but, in its current version, wildfires are largely overlooked. In June 2022 the European Commission approved the proposal for a Nature Restoration Law (NRL) (7). This proposal was preceded by the announcement of two key EGD elements: the Farm to Fork Strategy (8) (FtF) and the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 (9) (BdS). These laws and strategies will play a deciding role in shaping the future of the EU’s natural environment. They seek to balance the needs of Europe’s population for natural resources with nature conservation. Wildfires are only mentioned as a tagline and in relation to its effects on biodiversity. That is, the EGD currently neglects the reality that wildfires represent a serious civil protection and public health problem.
Addressing the fire problem within nature conservation projects is imperative. Analyses of this year’s fire season in southwest Europe reveal how 50% of the burnt area occurred in protected areas. In turn, protected areas “only” occupy 40% for the forest area in the region, indicating that protected areas are disproportionately affected by forest fire (2). There are different hypotheses to explain this phenomenon, such as the lack of fuel prevention treatments or the fact fires that spread in so-called “natural” (that is, dehumanized) landscapes include megafires.
The NRL seeks to restore up to 80% of European habitats by 2050. The need for restoration is not clear, as preservation of the current landscapes seriously threatened by climate and global changes should take priority. Furthermore, the current text proposes that restoration should be monitored as a function of the concentration of dead logs in forests, the spatial continuity of forests, and increasing soil carbon concentrations.
Dead logs are called large woody fuels within the fire literature: they do not contribute to fire spread, but they increase combustion time, hence enhancing the energy released during wildfires, which subsequently increases the severity of the fire and hinders post-fire recovery. Forest spatial continuity is one of the major drivers underlying the current pyrocrisis in Europe, and increasing soil carbon concentrations implies increasing undergrowth (e.g. fuel) concentrations. Consequently, the NRL in its current version will significantly worsen the fire problem.
Another key EGD objective is to promote the greening of urban and peri-urban areas by increasing urban forests, meadows, and farms, parks, and gardens. The 2018 Attica fire, in Greece, was the second deadliest fire in the 21st century with 102 fatalities (10). This fire resulted from a lack of planning for wildfire at the wildland-urban interface (WUI), a problem common across much of Europe (10). This event was extreme, but not exceptional: the year before, in June and October 2017, 117 people lost their lives in Portugal as they were trying to escape fires that swept through the semi-rural landscapes for which the EGD is being written (10). Greening cities is indeed important and an increasing number of reports link urban greening with a range of health benefits (11). However, greening plans under the EGD, particularly in peri-urban areas, must explicitly consider and address the consequent rise in wildfire risk, by significantly increasing the length of the WUI and thereby increasing the people exposed to fire risk, an aspect currently ignored in the plans of the European Commission.
Another key measure within the EGD is to increase the quantity, quality, and resilience of European forests by planting 3 billion trees. In the current communications, it is unclear whether tree planting seeks to increase forest cover, agroforestry activities or greening urban environments. We suggest this measure could drive growth of agroforestry activities. From a fire perspective, oak savannas such as the Portuguese Montados or the Spanish Dehesas present several advantages over forests. They can only support grass fires, which burn fast but at much lower intensity than forests, and fuels can be managed by grazing animals. Furthermore, agroforestry systems support high biodiversity, sustain rural economic development through extensive livestock farming and have lesser water requirements than forests (13).
How do we implement these measures within the proposed funding schemes? The EGD currently acknowledges the principle of “enhanced conditionality” within the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP): EU-funded income will be conditionally linked to environment- and climate-friendly farming practices and standards. We suggest that the approach is expanded to fully incorporate fire risk mitigation. That is, we propose that land management actions funded by the EU under the CAP, or under any other EGD funding scheme, explicitly consider the change in the medium and long-term fire risk, and the broader effects of such actions on the fire regime. Actions that diminish the risk of catastrophic fire risk should be prioritized and those that increase it should be either penalized or accompanied by compensatory or adaptive measures. A variety of wildfire simulators may be used to identify optimal solutions for the trade-offs involved (14).
Wildfires already pose a substantial risk to many communities in the EU and are projected to increase in frequency, severity, and extent with ongoing climate change. Climate models indicated that the extreme conditions of 2022 could become average by as soon as 2035 (15). We need effective policies to curb this problem and the EGD, through the NRL, FtF and BdS, presents a unique opportunity to redress this land management problem. Otherwise, we may lose a key opportunity to reverse the wildfire problem in the EU. Recent events in southeastern Australia (16), Indonesia and the western US provide a dire warning of what the EU’s fire problem may look like in the near future as fuel loads grow, dry out more often, and become increasingly connected.
- Resco de Dios, V., and Nolan, R.H. “Some Challenges for Forest Fire Risk Predictions in the 21st Century”, Forests, 2021.
- Rodrigues, M., et al. “Drivers and implications of the extreme 2022 wildfire season in Southwest Europe”, Science of The Total Environment, 2023.
- San-Miguel-Ayanz, J., et al. “Comprehensive monitoring of wildfires in europe: the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS)”, In: Tiefenbacher, J., “Approaches to Managing Disaster – Assessing Hazards, Emergencies and Disaster Impacts”, InTech, 2012.
- Resco de Dios, V., et al. “Climate change induced declines in fuel moisture may turn currently fire-free Pyrenean mountain forests into fire-prone ecosystems”, Science of the Total Environment, 2021.
- Castellnou, M., “El contexto actual de los incendios forestales y los retos de futuro en el marco del cambio global”, Lérida, España: Sociedad Española de Ciencias Forestales, 2022.
- Clarke, H., et al. “Forest fire threatens global carbon sinks and population centres under rising atmospheric water demand”, Nature Communications, 2022.
- European Commission, “Proposal for a Nature Restoration Law”, 2022.
- European Commission, “COMMUNICATION FROM THE COMMISSION TO THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT, THE COUNCIL, THE EUROPEAN ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL COMMITTEE AND THE COMMITTEE OF THE REGIONS. A Farm to Fork Strategy for a fair, healthy and environmentally-friendly food system”. 2020.
- European Commission, “COMMUNICATION FROM THE COMMISSION TO THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT, THE COUNCIL, THE EUROPEAN ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL COMMITTEE AND THE COMMITTEE OF THE REGIONS. EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030. Bringing nature back into our lives”, 2020.
- Haynes, K., et al. “Wildfires and WUI fire fatalities”, in Manzello, S.L., “Encyclopedia of Wildfires and Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) Fires”, Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2020.
- Bowler, D.E., et al. “Urban greening to cool towns and cities: A systematic review of the empirical evidence”, Landscape and Urban Planning, 2010.
- Bombers, “Informe d’Incendis Forestals. La Torre de l’Espanyol” RETE, 26/06/2019. 5080 ha N.S.G. (192604625). 2019.
- Moreno, G., et al. “Agroforestry systems of high nature and cultural value in Europe: provision of commercial goods and other ecosystem services”,. Agroforestry Systems, 2017.
- Resco de Dios, V., “Plant-Fire Interactions. Applying Ecophysiology to Wildfire Management”, Cham, Switzerland: Springer; 2020.
- CCAG, “Record-breaking heatwave will be an average summer by 2035, latest Met Office Hadley Centre data shows. Climate Crisis Advisory Group, 2022.
- Boer, M.M., Resco de Dios, V., and Bradstock, R.A., “Unprecedented burn area of Australian mega forest fires”, Nature Clim Change, 2020.