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After devastating European fire season, experts call for new approach to protecting forests

·7 min read
A volunteer watches as firefighters use a water hose to extinguish the blaze of a forest fire in the village of Glatsona on Evia island, Greece, in August. (Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP via Getty Images - image credit)
A volunteer watches as firefighters use a water hose to extinguish the blaze of a forest fire in the village of Glatsona on Evia island, Greece, in August. (Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP via Getty Images - image credit)

Scenes from this summer's devastating wildfires in southern Europe reverberated around the world. Acres of olive groves reduced to charcoal. Livestock lying dead and burnt in blackened fields.

"I am ruined," one shepherd in Italy's Sardinia region told RAI, the country's public broadcaster. "Everything of mine burned. Everything."

On the Greek island of Evia, thousands of residents were forced to flee by boat as flames drove them to the water. Eventually consuming more than 1,000 square kilometres, it was "the largest single fire in history in Greece," according to Demetres Karvallas, the director of WWF Greece.

The summer of 2021 will be remembered as one of the worst European wildfire seasons on record, with more than 350,000 hectares — and counting — burnt across Italy, Greece and Spain, nearly three times the average over the past decade.

Temperature records were shattered across southern Europe, and simultaneous large fires challenged the ability of European authorities to co-ordinate.

"It's affecting the whole Mediterranean, from east to west," said Marc Castellnou, a fire chief and wildfire expert in Spain's Catalonia region. "It doesn't matter the amount of resources you have. The fire … will overcome you."

The fires have prompted a discussion among European officials about whether emergency services are prepared, after decades of austerity, for the consequences of climate change.

Milos Bicanski/Getty Images
Milos Bicanski/Getty Images

But fire experts caution that Europe needs more than investment in new planes and helicopters. They say Europeans governments and citizens alike must rethink their relationship to the landscape or face ever-worsening fires.

"They should recognize that it is in their own interest to manage the land in a way that is ... less susceptible to fire," said Johann Goldammer, the founding director of the Global Fire Monitoring Centre at Germany's Max Planck Institute. "If they don't, they will always run after the problem."

Challenges to austerity

In Greece, where wildfires caused two deaths and thousands of people to lose their homes, the reckoning in recent weeks has focused squarely on a government that slashed civil protection budgets in the name of austerity, while spending more on police and the military.

During its diplomatic standoff with Turkey in the summer of 2020, Greece poured more than €4 billion into the military, an amount increased by more than 50 per cent this year. But when the Forestry Authority asked for €17.7 million (about $26.3 million Cdn) for fire prevention in November, it received just €1.7 million (about $2.5 million).

Firefighting budgets slashed in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, meanwhile, are still 20 per cent lower than they were before austerity.

"There is at least a 20 per cent shortage of human power," said Pablo Sanchez, a spokesperson for European Public Service Unions, a labour group representing European firefighters.

Jorge Guerrero/AFP via Getty Images
Jorge Guerrero/AFP via Getty Images

"If you're facing a fire that is demanding 100 people, and you have 60, you end up cutting the corners," Sanchez said. "That's what happened with the evacuations."

Unable to contain the fires and scarred by a 2018 wildfire season that saw more than 100 killed in the resort town of Mati, Greek authorities opted instead for mass evacuations, which left entire communities exposed to destruction, with wildfires free to grow.

"The state is absent," one villager told an AFP reporter during the fires in August. "And in the winter we are going to drown from the floods without the forests that were protecting us."

Greek anger at the political response has prompted an apology from Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, increased investments in firefighting technology and the creation of a new climate ministry tasked with preventing future disasters.

But even in countries with numerous, well-equipped firefighters, emergency responders are struggling to keep up with fires that appear to grow more severe every year.

Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP via Getty Images
Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP via Getty Images

'The root of the problem'

Mauro Giulianella, who represents Italy's thousands of firefighters as a director with its biggest public sector union, FP-CGIL, recalled driving through the night from Sicily to Rome after the worst of the wildfires, seeing the bright lights of small fires reigniting as he went along.

"It was just very depressing," he said in Italian.

The FP-CGIL is calling for the creation of a national firefighting force to aid rural areas, and increased investment in fire prevention.

Italy is normally well-resourced to handle a busy fire season, according to Goldammer. But this year was different. By one estimate, Italy saw as many as 1,000 new fires a day at their peak.

Driving this increase is a demographic shift that has been underway in Europe for more than a generation.

"We do not respond to the root of the problem," said Castellnou. "Our society is becoming an urban society."

"The young generation is leaving the countryside," said Goldammer.

Alberto Pizzoli/AFP via Getty Images
Alberto Pizzoli/AFP via Getty Images

As a result, he said, land once intensively farmed and occupied is being abandoned and reclaimed by new, rapid-growth forests that fuel larger fires, Goldammer said. In Greece, forest cover has actually increased, despite successive devastating fire seasons.

"People used [to use] every wooden stick for cooking and heating, and this has been abandoned," he said. "A wildfire nowadays finds so much fuel that historically has not been available."

Worse, century-old land management techniques, like controlled burns of brush when clearing fields for farming, have become incredibly dangerous as heat waves dry out the countryside.

Suburban sprawl in Europe's major cities has also led to more people living among forests, increasing the risk that a fire will be sparked.

These trends are strongest in the Mediterranean, but climate change means the higher temperatures that drive them are moving north into central Europe, where uncontrolled wildfires could be even more devastating.

Alexander Held, a fire predictions expert with the European Forest Institute, said under these circumstances, central Europe could see "Canadian-style" fires that burn for days and cover thousands of hectares.

Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters
Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters

"If that were to [happen], fire behaviour would be even more extreme than in Greece or Spain," he said.

Finding a solution

Fire experts like Goldammer, Held, and Castellnou have known for decades how to prevent these megafires — through controlled burns, fire gaps and other techniques that limit their fuel and tame their movement.

But buying firefighting planes and helicopters is not just more popular for governments confronting an angry and devastated public — it's also significantly easier.

"To roll fire prevention out on a landscape level, you need resources," said Held, "[and] you need political support."

Most forest land in Europe is privately owned in small parcels, and much of it by owners who don't live there. While most landholders will happily welcome a fire crew coming to save their forest from encroaching wildfires, controlled burns when there is no apparent danger is a different story.

"It's like a vaccine. A small fire is a vaccine for the biggest fire," Castellnou said. "[And] we are acting like an anti-vaccine society. We don't want the fire to touch our forest."

Even where burns are allowed, there is still the problem of an unmanaged rural landscape. Goldammer says governments will likely need to introduce new financial incentives to encourage people to volunteer for land management programs as well as to repopulate the countryside.

"A government cannot achieve that within an election period," he said, which is why it's "of very limited attractiveness" to any administration.

Cesar Manso/AFP via Getty Images
Cesar Manso/AFP via Getty Images

There are some reasons for optimism. The European Union's post-COVID-19 Recovery and Resilience Fund is earmarking huge sums of money for governments, including for climate mitigation.

"Money is now being made available," said Karvallas with the Greek WWF. But "there are big, big challenges in shifting it in the right direction."

Held is still a pessimist. European bureaucracy is too complex for most small-scale landowners to navigate, and political leadership is, at least for now, lacking.

"I don't see the pain being high enough," he said. "It's still a more comfortable decision … to keep on doing what we are doing, and eventually have a disaster — but only for a few weeks."

One thing is certain: Europeans' tolerance for worsening fire seasons is shrinking, and governments are increasingly aware they can't outpace the fires forever.

"If you want to really overcome … these extreme conditions that we've seen in Greece and Italy and Spain," Held said, land management "is the only recipe."

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