BRUSSELS, Belgium, May 15, 2019 (ENS) – From Norway to Spain, from the United Kingdom to Romania, the number and severity of wildfires burning at the start of this year have risen sharply from that of previous decades, according to data from the European Forest Fire Information System, EFFIS.

This year’s fire season started early and has already surpassed the 181,000 hectares burned over the entire 2018 fire season.

EFFIS, part of the EU’s Joint Research Centre, has recorded 1,233 fires of about 30 hectares (one square mile) or more up to the end of April.

That number is 41 more fires than the total for the entire year 2018 (1,192 fires) and nearly 11 times the 10-year average for this time of year (115 fires).

In April, for instance, hundreds of people in Sokndal, Norway had to evacuate as emergency services struggled to extinguish forest fires raging in the south of the country.

fire

One of two unseasonal fires on England’s Ashdown Forest this winter, Feb. 26, 2019 (Photo by Tom Lee)

April is very early for forest fires in Norway, and experts have warned of a dramatic increase across the continent. In April, wildfires broke out in Sweden, Germany and the UK.

Fires in Europe “are way above the average” for this time of year, an EFFIS official, who declined to be identified, told the BBC. “The season is drastically worse than those of the last decade.”

The official said persistent drought and “a very dry winter in most of Europe” had created conditions for the rise in forest fires, and that the long term forecast shows no improvement.

In addition, there has been an expansion of risk areas to countries where wildfires were not common in the past, including Sweden, Latvia, Germany and the UK. This pattern has been confirmed by the wildfire trends seen this year.

In Germany, firefighters were on the job over the Easter weekend, and Germany’s weather service warned that a drought this year at least as severe as the one in 2018 is likely if the current dry weather continues.

It is not even summer, but already the United Kingdom has seen a large number of wildfires, including blazes in February and April in England’s Ashdown Forest, the setting that inspired the Hundred Acre Wood in A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh stories. By the end of April, the UK had already experienced more fires than in the entire record-breaking year of 2018.

In fact, not fiction, EFFIS provides the latest information on fire danger and fire impacts in the EU, with the most recent data to identify the evolution and trends of wildfires. This helps authorities monitor wildfires and respond effectively when an emergency happens.

These observations come as EFFIS publishes its 2018 advance report, which shows a trend of more intense wildfires happening over a longer period of the year.

The final report, “Forest Fires in Europe, Middle East and North Africa 2018,” which will include national statistics from all countries contributing to EFFIS, is expected later this year.

Scientists with the Joint Research Centre have been investigating the factors affecting fire danger across the continent as well as the costs and dangers associated with them.

EFFIS is one part of the Copernicus Emergency Management Service. As fires raged across Europe at the height of summer 2018, both EFFIS and the Rapid Mapping services provided critical information to help with emergency response efforts.

Copernicus is the EU’s Earth observation program, providing high-quality environmental monitoring, emergency management and support for border and maritime security.

Disasters across Europe are becoming more frequent and complex. The effects of climate change and changing risks have seen many countries being seriously affected over recent years.

The EU has experienced a large number of disasters with the loss of lives and other damaging consequences for citizens, businesses, communities and the environment.

In 2017 alone, 200 people in Europe were killed by natural disasters. Climate change is predicted to further exacerbate the effects of such disasters. In 2018 alone, natural disasters killed more than 100 people in Europe.

The economic costs are huge too; close to €10 billion (US$11.2 billion) in damages on the European continent were recorded in 2016.

The EU must respond to this challenge and better protect its citizens from these disasters, but the EU’s disaster response tools have been limited and often not able to provide the assistance Member States ask for during a crisis or deliver it fast enough. This is because the EU’s current Civil Protection Mechanism relies on a voluntary system and on extra capacities that the Member States can offer to another country in need.

To strengthen the EU’s collective response to disasters like major wildfires, rescEU entered into force on March 21, 2019

rescEU is a reserve of assets used when Member States can’t cope with a disaster themselves and require extra EU assistance to be delivered quickly. All costs and capacities of rescEU are fully covered by EU financing, with the European Commission retaining the operational control of these assets and deciding on their deployment.

The rescEU initiative upgrades the EU Civil Protection Mechanism, establishing a new European reserve of capacities – firefighting planes and helicopters, special water pumps, urban search and rescue and field hospitals and emergency medical teams – while boosting disaster prevention and preparedness measures.

EU President Jean-Claude Juncker said of rescEU when political agreement was reached on the initiative last December, “A Europe that protects citizens has to be there in times of need. When there is a dangerous forest fire or a flood overwhelming national response, our citizens want action, not words. rescEU will ensure concrete solidarity with our Member States hit by disasters.”

To ensure that Europe is prepared for this year’s forest fire season, the new rescEU legislation includes a transition phase during which participating countries can get funding in exchange for putting their firefighting means at the disposal of the European Union.

When the new rescEU legislation took effect, Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management Christos Stylianides said, “With rescEU, we have put words into action. We have delivered a practical tool for citizens that can save thousands of lives in the future. rescEU means having a much stronger, pan-European civil protection system.

Stylianides said, “Our EU Emergency Centre is working around the clock with Member States to make rescEU operational.”

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2019. All rights reserved.