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POLITICO: Fires in Europe - how forests have become a threat to people

4-8-2023 |

It’s time to prepare for a more flammable Europe.

Global warming is turning vast tracts of the Continent into a tinderbox, with heat and drought helping wildfires spread with ease.

Last month, flames besieged the leafy outskirts of Sicily’s Palermo, ripped through dense forest on Spain’s La Palma, and raced down the wooded mountains of Greece’s Rhodes, forcing thousands to flee their homes and hotels.

These destructive blazes weren’t inevitable, fire experts and emergency workers say. Rather, the EU and its member countries are failing to prevent such disasters.

“The wildfires are proof that we're not putting enough effort into land management,” said Raffaele Cozzolino, an Italian firefighter and trade union representative based in Naples.

While the EU is building a permanent fleet of firefighting aircraft, the bloc has so far paid little attention to preventative measures like active management of forests, critics say.

That leaves firefighters like Cozzolino to play catch-up every summer.

Flames have ravaged more than 200,000 hectares in the EU in the first seven months of this year, and fire season is far from over.

“We are only running behind the problem,” said German Green MEP Anna Deparnay-Grunenberg, a forester by training. “So far, the EU has spent its funds almost exclusively on reactive forest fire measures.”

She argued that it was “high time” for Brussels and EU governments to enact preventative measures, like rewetting soil and ending forest clear-cutting.

But, as jarring as it sounds, forestry experts say Europe will also need to fell more trees.

“We need old-growth forests relatively limited in area,” said Gavriil Xanthopoulos, director of the Institute of Mediterranean Forest Ecosystems. “We don't want full mountains with untouched forests.”

To most Europeans, a vast uninterrupted expanse of green looks like nature in its ideal state. To Víctor Resco de Dios, it looks like a death trap.

“We think this is wilderness, this is pretty,” he said. “Actually, this is something really dangerous.”

Resco de Dios, professor of forest science at Spain’s University of Lleida, says the recipe for a dangerous wildfire consists of an ignition source, weather conditions that help flames to spread, and — most importantly — large amounts of fuel, meaning unbroken stretches of dry vegetation.

Most fires in Europe are started by humans, whether by arson, neglect or accident, meaning that educating people about the danger of, say, flicking cigarettes into woodland, is key.

But preventing ignition shouldn't be the main focus, given natural phenomena like lightning can also start a blaze, Resco de Dios argues.

With climate change making many parts of Europe hotter and drier, slashing planet-warming emissions is vital to reducing fire risk.

Describing wildfires as a “very big herbivore” that never gets its fill, he said: “The more vegetation it has, the more vegetation it will consume. And the drier the vegetation is, the more delicious it will be.”

That can be particularly catastrophic on the outskirts of cities, where there are huge "swaths of land that are simply not managed, and they can fuel a catastrophic fire,” said Cozzolino, the firefighter.

Addressing that issue means not only reducing combustible undergrowth in forests, but also strategic tree-cutting. That's unlikely to be a popular policy, Resco de Dios acknowledged.

“We have Bambi as our mental frame for what nature should be, so there is a very strong social opposition against forest management,” he said. But, he stressed, “cutting trees is not the same as deforestation.”

While forest cover worldwide has declined, it has increased in Europe in recent decades as farmers abandoned their land to live in cities.

Without regular clearing of undergrowth by farmers and their animals, forests have grown wilder and denser, contributing to a build-up of combustible biomass, said Xanthopoulos.

“Forest fires are, to a large extent, the outcome of our modern way of living,” he added.

Preventing wild forests from spreading across Europe sounds counterintuitive — especially as Brussels has pushed for ambitious targets to restore the Continent’s degraded ecosystems.

The controversial new rules are meant to improve nature’s resilience to climate change and its capacity to act as a carbon sink. But experts warn that nature restoration efforts could have harmful knock-on effects if not implemented correctly.

In southern Europe, letting forests grow naturally without human intervention can be "very positive for natural biodiversity, but creates these unwanted consequences. One is wildfire risk,” said Inazio Martínez de Arano, senior expert at the European Forest Institute.

The EU has committed to improving wildfire prevention and monitoring as part of its 2030 Forest Strategy. But legislation to develop an EU-wide forest observation framework to support management activities has been delayed.

Europe needs to wake up to the wildfire threat before another tragedy strikes, the Spanish academic warned, saying he's particularly concerned about cities and towns surrounded by woodland.

“There are some places where if there's a fire, well, you’re just in a trap,” he said, “like in Mati” - a Greek village where 104 people died in 2018.

For now, large wildfires are mostly seen in Mediterranean countries. But as climate change heats up Europe, “the fire belt will keep moving north and higher in altitude, so we can expect fire in mountain regions like the Pyrenees and the Alps,” said Resco de Dios.

In Central Europe, wooded areas tend to have higher fuel loads than Mediterranean forests, leading to larger fires, he added.

“We will see loss of life to fire, loss of property, and lots of businesses affected by fire,” he warned. “In Europe, in Brussels, people are not aware of what’s coming.”