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 does not yet have a common forest policy, but it 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.
In 1998 DG Environment established the Commission's Expert Group on Forest Fires. This group meets twice a year in Brussels and Ispra (Italy). The Expert Group created the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS), which is jointly managed by the Commission's Joint Research Centre and DG Environment.
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. In 2006 the European Parliament called for further improvement of EFFIS in several areas not sufficiently developed.
An international conference organised by the European Commission on the prevention and restoration in southern Member States looked at the lessons learnt and the possible tools to face the problem more efficiently.
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.
Between 2007 and 2013 financing under LIFE+ will be available for awareness raising campaigns, providing information to the public, and training of forest fire prevention agents.
A March 2008 Commission Communication on reinforcing the Union's capacity to respond to disasters looks into the challenge of dealing with disaster prevention, mitigation and response. It covers the work of EFFIS in this area and includes an annex on forest fires, which studies how best to synchronise prevention, preparedness, response and recovery activities to be ready to deal with disasters of magnitude equal to the forest fires that struck Europe in the summer of 2007.
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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 new regulation on rural development came into force (1698/2005) for 2007 to 2013.
This new regulation provides the legal basis for supporting the restoration of forests and fire prevention activities. It lays the ground for a new rural development policy. It also obliges Member States to classify in their forest protection plans areas on their territory posing particular risks of fire. Measures for preventing fires and for restoring damage from fire must be included in those forest areas classified as high or medium risk (articles 36 and 48).
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The 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.
Relevant legislation, documents, and links
DG Research has supported forest fire research since the late 1980s with the aim of strengthening research activities and initiatives in various fields related to forest fires. DG Research is financing one such project, the FIREPARADOX project (€12 million), which began in early 2006 for a period of four years with the overall goal of creating the scientific and technical foundation for integrated wild land fire management practices and policies.
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.
The resolution asks the European Commission to:
As a response to a March 2008 Commission discussion paper on the issue, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on 19 June 2008 on stepping up the Union's disaster response capacity.
Some Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) say that creating a European Civil Protection Force is not sufficient and call on the Commission to develop a rapid response capacity on the basis of the civil protection modules of Member States. To integrate prevention and disaster risk reduction into the Structural and Cohesion funds, the Parliament asked for existing guidelines to be strengthened and new ones to be developed. It also calls for the Monitoring and Information Centre – through which any country affected by a major disaster can launch a request for assistance – to be strengthened so that it can actively support Member States' operations.
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.
Relevant resolutions, documents and links