Forests play a key role in protecting European ecosystems and biodiversity. They are also central in trapping carbon which would otherwise be released in the atmosphere and thus aggravating climate change. The serious impacts of fires on forests have led decision makers to recognise that prevention at European level is one of the most efficient ways to face these threats. The European Union has brought in a series of measures to support forests and forestry. Various Directorates-General (DGs) at the European Commission are involved in the development and monitoring of measures in the field of information, prevention, fire fighting and restoration of burned surfaces.
DG Environment's commitment to forest fire prevention and control is long-standing. A regulation in 1992 provided the legal framework for specific measures devoted to forest fire prevention between 1992 and 2002. This tool linked prevention in the field and monitoring of fires and supported national restoration efforts against fires. It helped significantly improve knowledge about forest fires. However, both the nature of such disasters (underlying social and economic problems) and the relatively small amount of EU financial support provided limited results. The scheme expired on 31 December 2002 and was replaced by Forest Focus.
The purpose of Forest Focus was to establish a new EU scheme for monitoring forests and environmental interactions to protect EU forests against pollution and forest fires. From the start of the scheme in 2003 to its conclusion in 2006, it supported the implementation of forest fire prevention measures in Member States.
Expert Group on Forest Fires
In 1998 DG Environment established the Commission's Expert Group on Forest Fires. This group meets twice a year in Brussels and Ispra (Italy) and in exceptional cases in other European countries. The members of the Expert Group are the national correspondents to the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS), which is jointly managed by the Commission's Joint Research Centre and DG Environment.
In 2015, the expert group will become a sub-group of the new expert group on forest information, besides a new sub-group on forest health and pests.
The aim of EFFIS is to provide EU level assessments of situations before and after fires and to support fire prevention through risk mapping, and promote preparedness, fire fighting and post-fire evaluations. The objective of EFFIS is not to duplicate or substitute national databases, but to provide information with a European scope.
Although Forest Focus expired in 2006, activities under EFFIS are continuing. The Council and the European Parliament call for further improvement of EFFIS in several areas not sufficiently developed.
Before Forest Focus expired the Commission created an ad hoc working group of forest fire prevention experts from interested Member States and forest sector non-governmental organisations. The aim of the working group was to put forward proposals to the European Commission on forest fire prevention policies after 2006. The group met in 2004 and 2005.
Life + Regulation (EC) No. 614/2007
Between 2007 and 2013 financing under LIFE+ is available for awareness raising campaigns, providing information to the public, and training of forest fire prevention agents.
It is replaced by Regulation 1293/2013 applicable from 2014 to 2020.
DG Agriculture and Rural Development
In 1999, the Agenda 2000 reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) built on and extended the reforms carried out in 1992 and consolidated the role of rural development in that policy. The EU's rural development policy under Agenda 2000 seeks to establish a coherent and sustainable framework for the future of rural areas. To achieve these objectives the European Agricultural Guidance and Guarantee Fund (EAGGF) was amended (1257/1999) to encompass rural development, thus becoming an important vehicle for implementing the EU's Forestry Strategy.
Between 2000 and 2006 a total of €4.8 billion was allocated to forestry measures under the EAGGF budget for the then 15 EU Member States. This amounted to almost 10% of the total budget allocated to rural development over that period (Leader+ excluded). This meant that until 2006 rural development programmes could co-finance forest fire prevention activities and the restoration of forest areas destroyed by fire.
The successive agricultural policy reforms of June 2003 and April 2004 introduced major changes with wide-ranging implications on the Union's rural economy, particularly on agricultural production patterns, land management methods, employment and wider social and economic conditions. From 1 January 2007 a Regulation on rural development came into force (1698/2005) for 2007 to 2013.
From 1 January 2014 a Regulation on support for rural development by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD) came into force (1305/2013) for 2014 to 2020.
The EU Solidarity Fund was set up in 2002 under to provide Member States or regions with speedy, effective and flexible support to deal with the damage caused by a disaster.
Member States requiring assistance must submit an application to the European Commission within ten weeks of the date of the first damage. The extent of financial assistance available from the Solidarity Fund depends on extent of the damage. To qualify, the estimated cost of total direct damage must exceed €3 billion in 2002 prices or 0.6% of the gross national income of the State in question, whichever is the lower. Under exceptional cases the Fund can provide assistance for disasters that do not reach the normal threshold. Financial assistance from the Solidarity Fund may however only be used for a limited number of emergency operations carried out by public authorities, such as provisional repair of vital infrastructures, providing temporary accommodation or funding rescue services. The Fund may not compensate for private losses, including those in agriculture or forestry.
In the wake of devastating forest fires in Greece and large-scale flooding in the United Kingdom in September 2007, the European Parliament (EP) adopted a resolution on natural disasters which condemns the practice of illegal construction on protected and non-authorised areas. Adopted by a large majority, it also makes reference to the fires and floods which have caused death and destruction throughout the European continent and in the EU’s outermost regions like Martinique and Guadeloupe, which were hit by Hurricane Dean.
As a response to a March 2008 Commission Communication on the issue, on 19 June 2008 the European Parliament adopted a resolution on stepping up the Union's disaster response capacity.
A report on the causes and contributing factors of forest fires in Europe was published in February 2008. The study provides facts about forest fires in southern Europe based on case studies in Portugal and in Greece. The report assesses the causes of forest fires and provides recommendations. Among different elements leading to disasters such as forest fires, the study refers to sociological observations made in Greece. In the past rural people depended more on forest resources and contributed more to fire prevention. Following considerable rural depopulation, the Greek forest service was forced to acquire fire-fighting vehicles and hire seasonal fire-fighters. In Portugal, the study reveals that fires often start very close to main roads. High population density seems to play a double role. It leads to a higher number of fires as a result of human activity and also increases detection of fires. Early fire detection is higher in densely populated areas, which can lead to a quicker response by fire-fighters and ultimately to less forest cover being affected by forest fires.