MADRID — Continued drought in several Mediterranean countries, a heat wave that hit northern Germany last week, and high fuel costs for planes needed to fight forest fires have heightened concerns across Europe this summer.
And it’s only June.
“Much of the continent is suffering from drought,” says Cathelijne Stoof, professor of environmental sciences at Wageningen University, who called the wildfire prospects “very challenging across Europe”.
Fires blackened more than 11,000 square kilometers (4,250 square miles) of land last summer — an area more than four times the size of Luxembourg. About half of the damage was in the European Union.
And, experts say, the wildfires in Europe are not just a problem for the southern, warmer countries.
“What scientists are warning us is that (fires) are clearly moving north, and in countries like the UK, in countries like Germany, and in Scandinavian countries, we should expect wildfires to become more frequent in the future,” said Catherine Gamper, a specialist in Climate Change Adaptation at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Wildfires across Spain have destroyed tens of thousands of hectares of forested land, although a recent sharp drop in temperatures is helping firefighters contain them.
Spain’s problems started with the first heat wave in two decades in the spring. In many Spanish cities, temperatures rose as high as normal in August to above 40 C (104 F).
Neighboring Portugal also experienced its warmest May in nine decades, and France had its warmest on record.
“As a result of climate change, heatwaves start earlier and become more frequent and intense due to record concentrations of heat-trapping greenhouse gases,” the World Meteorological Organization said last week.
“What we are experiencing today is a foretaste of the future.”
Despite extensive planning, early warning monitoring, and forecasting models, preparing for wildfires remains a huge challenge. The EU is expanding a shared pool of planes 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 policy analyst and specialist in climate adaptation and resilience.
“We do know that the summer (of) 2022 will be particularly warm and dry according to the weather forecast, possibly even more than 2020 or ’21, which was Europe’s driest and hottest summer,” she said. “We can expect the risk of forest fires in Europe before the summer could be very high.”
In Greece, which suffered some of Europe’s most devastating fires last August, authorities say increased fuel costs have contributed to the fire service’s challenges, which relies heavily on water-dripping planes to fight fires in the mountainous country.
Greece will start using fire-retardant chemicals in water droplets this year, while the EU will send more than 200 firefighters and equipment from France, Germany, and four other countries to Greece to stay all summer.
The seasons of wildfires are also getting longer.
“The concept of a fire season is currently losing its meaning. We have fire season all year round,” said Victor Resco de Dios, a professor of forestry at the University of Lleida in Spain’s Northeast Catalonia region, which has been hard hit by summer fires.
“The main change we’re seeing with climate change is a longer duration of fire seasons.”
Laura Vilagra, a senior government official from Catalonia, told a regional conference that fire prevention measures could include park closures this season.
“The weather is worse every year, and the drought is evident this year,” she said. “We expect a very complicated summer.”
Resco foresees a bleak future in Spain, arguing that areas currently affected by fires “are unlikely to experience many fires by the turn of the century. Why? Because forests would be very scarce. There would be nothing left to burn.”
Other experts are not so grim.
Gamper and Arbinolo of the OECD pointed out that some of the worst fires have led to positive developments, such as the EU Civil Protection Mechanism, which enables rapid cooperation between countries in emergencies. European countries, they say, are also opening up to planning risk reduction rather than simply increasing their firefighting resources.
“At the core is the need for integrated fire management, attention to fires all year round instead of only when it is dry, and investments in landscape management,” says Stoof.
Gamper appealed to two things that she believed would have a major impact. First, rethink urban planning by not building near extreme-risk forests.
“I think our first kind of call to countries is really to think about where you’re going to stay,” Gamper said.
“Second, enforce your rules. Countries know what to do.”
Derek Gatopoulos reported from Athens, Greece. Hernan Muñoz Ratto contributed to this report from Barcelona, Spain.
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