Around 125,000 burnt hectares, thousands of people evacuated, dozens of burnt homes, and the lives of two people – this is the damage that the wildfires in Greece have inflicted in a single month, August 2021. Similarly, numerous fires devastated the rural and forest landscape in Italy, Cyprus, Turkey, California, and Algeria this summer, causing several deaths in the latter. From the beginning of the year until August the 10th, more than 175,000 hectares of the land area had burnt in Turkey, over 107,000 in Greece, and nearly 104,000 in Italy, all of these together equating to the size of roughly 721 football fields.
The European Union has significantly contributed to the management of the problem, supporting the Mediterranean countries suffering from forest fires through its Civil Protection Mechanism. It mobilised firefighting planes, helicopters, vehicles, and thousands of volunteers that helped contain fires in Greece, Italy, Bulgaria, Turkey, and Albania.
The severity of the problem of extreme wildfires requires large-scale interaction among multidisciplinary groups – which is precisely the action plan of FirEUrisk over the next four years. The European Union has invested 10 million euros in the project, aiming to investigate wildfire risk factors as well as to build capacity to prevent extreme wildfires and minimize their impacts.
The FirEUrisk team includes wildfire researchers, experts, first responders, representatives from insurance companies, policymakers, and citizens.
A threat on the rise
According to the latest data, the causes of most of the fires lie in rising temperatures and dryness due to the heatwave that Europe endured in the summer of 2021. Because of climate change, heatwaves become prolonged and more intense every year. And, although the number of fires and the extent of the areas burnt has been decreasing since the 1980s, fires are more extensive and more damaging, frequently resulting in ‘megafires.’
These high-impact fires cause severe damage to ecosystem services and biodiversity. Furthermore, they often harm critical infrastructures, such as power lines or water reservoirs, the livelihoods, such as crops, of the region’s inhabitants, and can also result in human casualties.
This new situation poses a challenge to the suppression capacities of many wildfire protection programmes across the European Union, as they are effective in average weather conditions but are insufficient to prevent extreme events under adverse conditions.
Harmonizing different approaches
In FirEUrisk, we are investigating how the current European strategies need to be upgraded by including socioeconomic factors, such as the impact of rural abandonment or specific land-management policies, and the biophysical conditions, such as the state of vegetation or the weather.
We address three aspects of wildfire risk: assessment, reduction, and adaptation. These aspects are linked with relative planning and management stages.
At the assessment stage, we evaluate the fire danger and the vulnerability of communities using modern technology and novel approaches that include geospatial analysis, satellites, weather models, and interviews. This way, we can investigate the effects of wildfires on people’s health, damage and loss of properties, as well as the environment’s impairment.
At the reduction phase, we will develop practical guidelines by harmonizing different European strategies to diminish wildfire risk, taking land-management strategies and suppression approaches into account. We are also considering near real time tools to predict the behaviour of wildfires, which will be helpful for first responders and decision-makers. We will also formulate trainings for landowners and citizens for the increasement of public awareness.
For the adaptation stage, we are looking into how changes in the climate, population, and policies will affect wildfires in the future. To do this, we simulate future climate scenarios and procedures as well as epidemiological models to analyse the long-term effect of fires on public health. There is a plan to test the project results in several Pilot Sites and Demonstration Areas across Europe.
Join our webinar on major fire events!
We are organising a webinar on December 2 at 10 a.m. (CET) to discuss the large wildfire events that have taken place in the Mediterranean Basin this 2021.
In this webinar, we will present material and results from various ongoing studies concerning fires that have occurred in Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Greece and Cyprus. The emphasis will be put on fire episodes with direct impact on the wildland urban interface. The aim of the presented studies is to learn from these tragic events, in order to prevent future tragedies in similar situations.
The webinar will be organised in Zoom, and it is open to all interested participants. Register for free here.
We’re excited to share our 4-year journey with you. Keep an eye on our blog as well as our Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube accounts for updates!