Drought increases fire risk across Europe

The risk of forest fires is increasing throughout Europe, experts have warned, saying that this year could see more lives lost than in the 2003 heatwave disasters.

In 2003, the total area destroyed by forest fires was 740,000 hectares – roughly three times the size of Luxembourg – claiming the lives of 40 people.

By mid-July this year 19 people had already lost their lives, 70,000 fires had been recorded and an area of 140,000 hectares had already burnt. The outlook for the rest of the year looks poor, with fires blazing across Europe, particularly Portugal, Spain and southern France.

The European Commission, through its Joint Research Centre and Environment Directorates General is forecasting the risks via the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS).

Its forecast analysis shows a critical situation with risks in the Mediterranean region already above those recorded for 2003 and 2004. Persistent drought has left masses of accumulated dry ignitable fuels on the ground acting as a tinderbox for the fires to follow.

Eleven firefighters in Guadalajara, Spain, died trying to battle a blaze which suddenly surged and trapped them before it went on to destroy over four thousand hectares of pine forest.

Paulo Barbosa of the EU Institute for Environment and Security said that only 10 to 15% of fires are started by natural causes, with police suspecting many were set deliberately. Poor environmental education was seen as a key factor.

The Commission is now fine-tuning technology to provide information on droughts on a European scale to improve forest fire predictions.

By David Hopkins

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