Author: CIARÁN GILES and DEREK GATOPOULOS, Associated Press
MADRID (AP) – Prolonged droughts in several Mediterranean countries, last week’s heat wave that hit northern Germany and high fuel costs for aircraft needed to fight forest fires have raised concerns across Europe this summer.
“Much of the continent is in drought,” said Cathelijne Stoof, a professor of environmental sciences at the University of Wageningen in the Netherlands, who described the forecast for wildfires as “very challenging across Europe”.
Last summer, fires engulfed more than 11,000 square kilometers (4,250 square miles) of land, more than four times the area of Luxembourg. About half of the damage was in the European Union.
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Experts say forest fires in Europe are not just a problem for southern, hotter countries.
“Scientists warn us that (fires) are clearly going north and in countries like the UK, in countries like Germany as well as the Scandinavian countries, we should expect wildfires to occur more often in the future,” said Catherine Gamper, a climate change adaptation specialist at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Wildfires across Spain have destroyed tens of thousands of hectares of wooded land, although the recent sharp drop in temperatures is helping firefighters hold them back.
The problems in Spain began with the arrival of the earliest heat wave in the last two decades. Such high temperatures as those usually recorded in August rose above 40 C (104 F) in many Spanish cities.
In neighboring Portugal, May was also the warmest in nine decades, and in France it was the warmest month so far.
“Due to climate change, heat waves start earlier and become more frequent and severe due to record concentrations of heat-retaining greenhouse gases,” the World Meteorological Organization said last week.
“What we are witnessing today is a prediction of the future.”
Despite extensive planning, early warning and forecasting models, preparing for wildfires remains a major challenge. The EU will expand its joint set of aircraft and helicopters on standby this summer to provide cross-border support, and is expected to work with more countries outside the bloc.
“It is very difficult to predict wildfires,” said Marta Arbinolo, an OECD political analyst and specialist in climate adaptation and resilience.
“We know that the weather forecasts for summer (from) 2022 are particularly warm and dry, perhaps even more than 2020 or 21, which was the driest and warmest summer in Europe,” she said. “We can expect that the risk of fires in Europe in the summer could be very high.”
In Greece, which suffered some of the most devastating fires in Europe last August, authorities say higher fuel costs have added to the challenges facing the fire service, which relies heavily on planes dropping water to fight fires in burning country.
Greece will start using flame retardant chemicals in water droplets this year, while the EU is sending more than 200 firefighters and equipment from France, Germany and four other countries to Greece to stay all summer.
Fire seasons are also getting longer.
“The concept of the fire season is currently losing its relevance. We have a fire season all year round, ”said Victor Resco de Dios, a professor of forestry engineering at the University of Lleida in Spanish north-eastern Catalonia, which has been hit hard by summer fires.
“The main changes we are seeing in climate change are the longer duration of fire seasons.”
Laura Vilagra, a senior Catalan government official, told a regional conference that measures to prevent fires this season could include closing parks.
“The weather is getting worse every year and the drought is very obvious this year,” she said. “We’re expecting a very complicated summer.”
Resco predicts a bleak future in Spain and argues that the areas currently affected by the fires “are unlikely to experience many fires at the turn of the century. Why? Because there would be very few forests. There would be nothing left to burn.”
Other experts are not so gloomy.
Gamper and Arbinolo of the OECD point out that some of the worst fires have in fact brought about positive developments, such as the EU’s civil protection mechanism, which allows for rapid cooperation between countries in emergencies. They also argue that European countries are opening up to include risk reduction in their planning, rather than just increasing their firefighting resources.
“The core is the need for integrated fire management, attention to fires throughout the year and not just when it’s dry, and investment in landscape management,” Stoof said.
Gamper appealed to two things she said would have a big impact. First, rethink urban planning so you don’t build near forests with extreme danger.
“I think our first call is for countries to really think about where they continue to settle,” Gamper said.
“Second, enforce your regulations. Countries know what to do. “
Derek Gatopoulos reported from Athens, Greece. Hernan Muñoz Ratto contributed to this report from Barcelona, Spain.
Follow Ciarán Giles at https://twitter.com/ciarangiles and Derek Gatopoulos https://twitter.com/dgatopoulos
Follow the AP Climate Report at https://apnews.com/hub/climate
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