28th Sep 2023


Europe's summer wildfires: the lessons to be learnt

  • The worst and largest wildfire ever recorded in the EU is still active in the Evros region, near Greece’s border with Turkey (Photo: European Space Agency)
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This summer's wildfires have dominated headlines, with pictures of helicopters flying overhead and tourists fleeing — and politicians across Europe blaming the magnitude of the disaster primarily on climate change.

However, experts have called upon authorities to actually raise awareness and improve forest and vegetation management to reduce the fire risk.

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The worst and largest wildfire ever recorded in the EU is still active in the Evros region, near Greece's border with Turkey, where the flames have burned over 83,000 hectares of land.

But this is just one of the several wildfires recorded this summer in Greece, which have also resulted in at least 20 lives lost.

The cente-right Greek government, criticised for inadequate prevention measures and emergency services by the opposition, has estimated that at least 150,000 hectares have been burned in Greece.

"Is the climate crisis the alibi for everything? No, it is not an alibi, but it is part of the interpretation," prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told the Greek parliament.

Overall, Greece, Spain and Portugal have recorded the largest wildfires this year.

In total, about 426,000 hectares have been burned in the EU since the beginning of the year, according to the European Commission's Joint Research Centre.

This includes about 120,000 hectares of environmentally-protected Natura 2000 areas — which safeguard some of Europe's most valuable and threatened habitats and animal species.

(Photo: European Space Agency)

While meteorological aspects related to climate change intensify and multiply wildfire risks, the past few years have seen a reduction in the number of firefighters in 10 European countries.

But experts argue that forest management itself is essential when considering the risk of wildfires.

A report from the World Resources Institute revealed that the recent abandonment of agricultural land in Europe has led to excessive vegetation growth, subsequently elevating the risk of wildfires.

"Once fires are large enough and they have the intensity they're having now in the Mediterranean region, they cannot be stopped (...) It is not the lack of means," said Jesús San Miguel, a senior researcher at the Joint Research Centre during a presentation in the parliament's agriculture committee.

Forest firebreaks, cigarettes, and cooking fires

National authorities, he said, need to manage the forest and vegetation, create more forest firebreaks and raise awareness.

"People have to be aware that if the fire danger is critical extreme that they cannot have barbecues, they cannot throw cigarettes, they cannot set fires, because those are the causes of the fires we are having now in the Mediterranean region and all over Europe," he said.

Meanwhile, it is estimated that wildfires cost the EU around €2.5bn per year — although the hidden costs of forest fires are difficult to calculate.

Wildfires have a devastating impact on local communities that are evacuated and uprooted from their homes.

Additionally, there are health expenses stemming from exposure to the dangerous PM2.5 particulate matter released into the air during these blazes.

The EU allocates €500m from the EU budget to respond to natural disasters across the bloc, but calls to increase such figures are on the rise.

This year the world has seen increased fire intensity — marked by the unprecedented wildfires in Canada and the devastating blaze in Hawaii.

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