Wildfires intensifying in Europe

Source: By The Indian Express

Europe is battling intense wildfires with countries like Spain, Greece and France struggling to stamp out fires and contain the damage. Thousands of people have been forced to flee their homes, and thousands of hectares of forest land burned to the ground amid a searing heatwave.

Why are wildfires worsening?

Wildfires require right climatic conditions, burnable fuel and a spark. Rising temperatures suck moisture out of plants, creating an abundance of dry fuel. Drought and high heat can kill plants and dry out dead grass, and other material on the forest floor that fuel the fire once it starts sweeping through a patch. While dry vegetation is the burnable fuel that serves as kindling for fires, the spark is sometimes caused by lightning, at other times by accident or recklessness of the local population.

A 2018 fire in California in the US, for instance, was started when a truck blew out its tire and its rim scraped the pavement, sending out sparks.

As for Europe, the region has been hit by an early fire season due to an unusually dry, hot spring that left the soil parched. Authorities attribute this to climate change. They add that the fires are being fanned by earlier-than-usual extreme temperatures and drought conditions in some parts.

Wildfire experts agree as they see clear climate change signatures in the dryness, high heat and early fire season.

How badly has Europe been hit?

PORTUGAL: Temperatures hit 47 degrees Celsius in Portugal recently. There will be no respite for the next one week, the country’s metrological department has said.

Firefighters have been struggling to control five forest and rural fires in the center and north of the country, the largest near the northern city of Chaves.

Portugal’s Health Ministry said late on 16 July 2022 that in the last seven days 659 people have died due to the heatwave, most of them elderly. It said the weekly peak of 440 deaths was on 14 July 2022.

Before the recent heatwave hit, mainland Portugal already had 96% of its territory in severe or extreme drought at the end of June.

SPAIN: In Spain, firefighters aided by the country’s armed forces’ emergency brigades are battling over 30 fires consuming forests spread across the country.

Spain’s National Defence Department said that “the majority” of its fire-fighting aircraft have been deployed. Many areas are rugged, hilly terrain that makes it difficult for ground crews to access. Spain has been experiencing a nearly week-long heatwave, with highs of 45.7 degrees Celsius. Spain’s national weather agency has said the heatwave would end on 18 July 2022, but warned temperatures would remain “abnormally high”.

FRANCE: In France, regional authorities 17 July 2022 said that wildfires had now spread over 11,000 hectares (27,000 acres) in the southwestern region of Gironde, and more than 14,000 people have been evacuated. More than 1,200 firefighters are currently engaged in operations to stamp out the blazes.

Emergency and Civil Protection Authority Commander Andre Fernandes urged people to take care not to ignite new fires in such bone-dry conditions.

GREECE: The fire brigade here said on 16 July 2022 that 71 blazes had broken out within 24 hours. On 17 July 2022, more than 150 firefighters were tackling a fire burning forest and farm land since 15 July 2022 in Rethymno on the island of Crete. The flames were fuelled by strong winds.

United Kingdom: In Britain, the national weather forecaster has issued its first red “extreme heat” warning for parts of England on 18 July 2022 and 19 July 2022, predicting temperatures could reach 40 degrees Celsius. This would breach the previous record of 38.7 degrees Celsius in 2019.

How dangerous is inhaling wildfire smoke?

While fire poses a direct risk to people’s life and property, wildfire smoke, and particularly the concentration of PM 2.5, or particles smaller than 2.5 microns, can also affect the respiratory and cardiovascular systems. For those already suffering from cardiovascular or respiratory illnesses, there is a risk of flare-ups.

Is a new approach needed to deal with the situation?

Wildfires across the world are becoming bigger and more frequent. Experts say that the approach has to change from firefighting to mitigation of factors that lead to extreme fire events.

In its annual Frontier report this year, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) said: “The trends towards more dangerous fire-weather conditions are likely to increase due to rising concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gases and the attendant escalation of wildfire risk factors.”

While strengthening firefighting capabilities, there is a need to tackle factors that make these fires escalate and become worse.