29th Sep 2023


More and earlier fires in EU — but not enough fire-fighters

  • Portugal has seen wildfires burn over 7,000 hectares this year (Photo: Ricardo Faria)
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Now summer is officially here, temperatures are rising and the risk of wildfires increases.

High temperatures and dry conditions due to climate change have increased both the risk of wildfires in Europe and the timing, to earlier than before.

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  • In Germany, of more than 1.3 million active firefighters, only around 50,000 are full-time professionals (Photo: Unsplash)

Significant fires were already recorded in different regions of Spain in March, with serious associated emissions. Portugal has also seen fires burn over 7,000 hectares this year. In Ireland, 20 wildfires registered in March burned over 1,000 hectares of land. And France has already surpassed its annual average of fire-ravaged areas, compared to last year.

"Having wildfires of these proportions so early in the year is an unusual occurrence," confirmed the EU's climate monitoring agency Copernicus.

The effects of climate change are not confined to the southern states of the EU. Even Nordic countries such as Sweden, Denmark and Finland have experienced small fires this year, raising questions about how prepared member states across the EU are to respond to such emergencies.

Will there be enough trained staff for the summer? The EU's Rescue Mechanism, which can be activated if a member state is unable to respond to an emergency, has doubled the capacity of its fleet to respond to wildfires this summer.

From June this year to the end of October, this flagship initiative will consist of 24 airplanes, four helicopters and 450 firefighters spread across Greece, France, and Portugal.

However, the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU) says there are still shortcomings in national capacity.

In Germany, of the more than 1.3 million active firefighters, about 50,000 are full-time professionals, meaning they have a salary and an employment contract. The rest are volunteers.

The situation is similar in France, where almost eight-out-of-ten firefighters are volunteers, raising doubts about their skills and availability, according to the country's firefighters' union.

Its own estimates suggest that there is a shortfall of between 20,000 and 40,000 additional professionals, depending on the number of hours worked and the area covered.

Is the staff shortage an investment problem? Total EU spending on fire services has increased from €26.9bn to €34.1bn between 2016 and 2021.

However, the EPSU stresses that the use of this money needs to be carefully analysed.

In 2021, only 365,000 people were employed as professional firefighters in the EU. This increase in spending could be due to paid overtime in countries such as Spain, the reinforcement of fleets for the summer in countries such as Sweden, or the payment of volunteer firefighters in France or Germany.

Maintaining crews is expensive, and there is not always the public budget to fund a permanent and professional fleet.

Adaptation: almost non-existent

Last year was another record-breaking year, with the second-worst wildfires season in the EU. All EU countries, bar Luxembourg, recorded wildfires in 2022.

In the EU, Spain was the most affected country by wildfires (where 315,705 hectares were burnt) — although Romania (162,518 hectares), Portugal (112,063 hectares), and France (74,654 hectares) were also affected.

Overall, fires observed in 45 countries burnt an area as big as Montenegro, hitting sensitive ecosystems and nature protection areas (especially in Spain, Romania and Portugal).

But EU countries have done little to prepare for the effects of climate change.

"We haven't prepared ourselves," says Mikael Svanberg of the Swedish municipal workers union Kommunal. "We have problems with training to fight forest fires, and there is a huge shortage of firefighters."

In Sweden, the authorities have taken some measures for the summer, but for Svanberg this is not enough without an increase in personnel, number of stations and equipment needed to face the new challenges that wildfires are creating.

In Spain, more of the same. "There is no strategy to deal with climate change," explains José Aranda, firefighter and member of the Spanish trade union Comisiones Obreras. "The (Madrid) team does not talk about it."

Meanwhile, in Greece, one of the worst-hit regions last summer, firefighters seem to be ready to protect their forests in the mega-fire season, Nikos Lavranos, general secretary of the Greek trade union POEYPS, told EUobserver.

But he admits they also face a shortage of around 4,000 firefighters and an ageing workforce, with the average age of firefighters now around 49.

In addition, Greek firefighters have to coordinate with firefighters from other countries to respond to emergencies, and this does not come without its challenges.

Training differs from country to country. In France, for example, training is much shorter than in Germany or the Netherlands.

"If each country trains its own firefighters, it won't work when you need coordinated help," says Svanberg, who until three years ago was an active firefighter in the Swedish capital, Stockholm.

In Kommunal's view, an EU-wide regulation setting minimum standards for training, including the language of communication, would be necessary in order to have a rapid and equally-prepared fleet.

"RescEU needs to change its perspective in order to be effective," says Svanberg. "As in Nato, we need to harmonise the forces needed to work together".

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