Climate Challenge in Europe: More Wildfires, Fewer Firefighters

György Folk (EUrologus),
Grzegorz Broniatowski (FRONTSTORY.PL)
György Folk (EUrologus),
Grzegorz Broniatowski (FRONTSTORY.PL)

Despite decades of targeted financial support, the differences in training and equipment across Europe make cooperation challenging and often inefficient.

Scrolling through the news in the summer of 2023 the average newsreader could not overlook reports of wild- and forest fires swiping across the globe. Just to name the biggest, Hawaii and Canada had some of their worst wildfires. In Europe Sardinia, Portugal’s Castelo Branco region, and the island of Santorini suffered extensively. Wildfires, defined as uncontrolled fires that occur in nature, are often harshened by climatic conditions and are increasingly present in Europe as a direct consequence of accelerating climate change.

According to the EC Joint Research Centre’s report on Forest Fires in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa, the European Union in 2022 experienced the highest number of fires since 2006. Over 5500 km2 of land was burned, double the size of Luxembourg – with over 1000 km2 within protected areas of Europe’s Natura 2000 network, the EU’s reservoirs of biodiversity.

With the growing fire risk across the continent, the relevance of the EU’s Civil Protection Mechanism has increased as well.  The Mechanism is meant to facilitate firefighters’ cooperation between member states, raising their alert readiness, and improving their deployability across the 27 member states.

Fewer and older firefighters

Since climate change is leading to a growing number of wildfires, it is clear that Europe needs more firefighters in the fire seasons than ever before. However, the sobering reality is that recently 10 EU countries made cuts in the number of firefighter jobs, according to a recent report published in August 2023 by Eurostat. In 2022 359,780 firefighters were employed across the EU, that is 2800 people less than in 2021.

In terms of age distribution of firefighters, figures point to an ageing tendency as 25.5% of them are over 50 years old, and only 12.6% are under 30. The Eurostat reports rush to underline that these numbers do not count volunteer firefighters, who constitute an important part of national fire-tackling strategies in several EU countries.

Interestingly, the level of fire risk in each EU member state does not necessarily correlate with the number of employed staff for firefighting. Greece, Estonia, and Cyprus employ the highest relative share of firefighters in their respective workforces, while other countries where wildfires are very common in the summer period such as Portugal, Spain, and Italy are in the midfield in this country rank. More concerning is that France, which in its southern regions is strongly affected by wildfires, ranks the second lowest after the Netherlands.

What does the EU do to facilitate cooperation?

By the end of August 2023, the European Union reinforced its shared infrastructure and rescEU’s firefighting fleet, consisting of firefighting planes and helicopters. This year, the EU Civil Protection Mechanism managing member states’ requests for immediate support has been activated 7 times for wildfires in Mediterranean Europe and beyond (Tunisia, Chile, and Canada). As a result, Europe has deployed 20 firefighting planes and over 660 firefighters to tackle wildfires.

The EU’s Civil Protection Mechanism was established back in 2001 in order to strengthen cooperation between the member states on civil protection and to improve prevention, preparedness, and response to disasters. The idea is that the participating countries bring together the necessary human capital, experience, and tools and vehicles. The EU coordinates and finances at least 75 percent of the deployment and transport costs of these operations.

To supply the Mechanism with expertise and teams, governments have created a European Civil Protection Pool. By 2023 124 specialised response capacities from 25 member states were added to cover all kinds of scenarios when the emergency overwhelms the response capabilities of a country in Europe and beyond.

The Mechanism was triggered over 700 times since its initiation. A telling figure is that between 2007 and 2019 a third of the EU Civil Protection Mechanism’s requests for assistance were wildfire-related. Currently, most resources are channelled into the EU’s humanitarian aid program in the context of the Ukraine war.

Shared infrastructure is one of the key elements for common solutions. In its continuous attempt to improve the quality and effectiveness of cross-border cooperation, the European Union in 2023 decided to invest 23 million euros in its very first fully shared-owned firefighting planes, due to be delivered by the 2027 fire season. They will be accompanied by another 12 planes co-financed by the EU but owned and operated by member states – with the condition to make them available across the bloc during the fire season. Previously the EU had a 28-aircraft fleet leased from EU countries’ own fleets or the market.

Focused on fires

In 2022, the EU’s Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC) channelled forest fire assistance to Czechia, France, Germany, Portugal, Slovenia, and Albania, with 33 planes and 8 helicopters deployed and over 1,500 firefighters on the ground.

However, as a seasoned Polish firefighters,Przemysław Rembielak and Bartosz Klich deployed in a number of cross-border operations explain to EDJNet, the equipment compatibility issue is often a major challenge between brigades. For example, the Polish teams on a foreign mission have 17 cars that can build 3 km hoses 110mm large, which is an appropriate diameter for extinguishing warehouses and garbage fires. For comparison Spanish brigades can deploy 3 km of hoses with a single car, but coming with a diameter only of 25 mm. Evidence also showed that the uniforms of some of the northern European brigades are way too hot to wear when they are deployed in Southern, Mediterranean countries for example.

Much matters in national fire extinction practices too. For example, Polish firefighters are used to counting on proper roads and maps and coordination points in tackling fires. On the other hand, Spanish brigades are taught to go with hoses on foot closer to the fires and deliver better off-road results.

In a number of member states, there is a „wall” between firefighters in state service and civil firefighters. It appears that the EU’s cross-border training opportunities did not make a substantial change on this front. Again, in Poland professional firefighter NGOs’ brigades had no access to the EU’s alert mechanism to offer their services – presumably for financial reasons. Another example in Greece shows that given the shortage of resources for overtime works, fuel cost, and in general extra work firefighters are reluctant to take on additional duties, let alone go abroad to help.

EU bodies and national experts could not underline enough the importance of wildfire prevention and education. Well-maintained forest firebreak zones and agricultural land borders are as essential to keep wildfires away as public education about proper campfire extinction and many more fire-related issues. Based on a European Commission’s answer to EDJNet, no EU regulations prescribing specific wildfire-related measures for Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) exist. However, there is a National Plan for Integrated Rural Fire Management in place in each member state, specifically addressing rural fires.

Likewise, there is no standardised fire alertness education material. This paired with historical traditions led to a situation where the EU country’s level of public education varies widely. The Swedes, Finns Germans, and Poles for example one the more thought societies of Europe, and Portugal are busy catching up when it comes to maintaining forests and protecting nature from catching fires. While other member states show significantly more reluctance to educate the general population.

The representative of the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS) too called for more focus on prevention, including public education, in his recent intervention at the European Parliament’s AGRI committee in September 2023.

Cover photo: Flames rise in front of firefighters as a wildfire burns near the village of Ziria, near Patras, Greece, August 1, 2021. Photo: Costas Baltas/Reuters/Forum

This material is published in the context of the “FIRE-RES” project co-funded by the European Union (EU). The EU is in no way responsible for the information or views expressed within the framework of the project. Responsibility for the content lies solely with EDJNet. Go to the FIRE-RES page

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