There is no room for complacency among Europe's disaster research community, as this year's heavy summer fire season in southern Europe poignantly shows. Headlines reviews EU research initiatives helping authorities monitor and potentially reduce the risk of forest fires.
Greater effort aimed at stamping out forest fires on the continent saw the number of hectares burned in 2004 more than halved compared with 2003, according to the Environment and Joint Research Centre (JRC) DGs' report on ‘Forest Fires in Europe in 2004'. But the signs look ominous of a return to higher figures following a summer a huge forest fires in southern Europe, most strongly felt in drought-stricken parts of Portugal and Spain.
|Poster, in Italian, of a campaign to stamp out forest fire in Europe.|
© Agriculture DG of the European Commission
Owing to the large number of forest fires and the costs and risks – to human lives, land and the environment – associated with them, the Commission set up an expert group in 2004 to advise it on how to prevent or mitigate them in Europe. The Group suggested a number of ways to improve decision-making and organisation to help tackle the problem.
“As our environment has always been exposed to certain fire risks, and always will be, we have to identify the right preventive and remedial measures so as to limit the damage as far as possible. The general principle is to restore nature and not to change the landscape,” notes the report.
Several areas where the Union has helped are in risk forecasting, damage assessment and readings of atmospheric pollution from fires, monitoring vegetation re-growth, and in gauging post-fire risk, such as soil erosion and landslides. Often using satellite technology, these activities are covered by the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS), which was set up in 2003 after valuable groundwork by the JRC DG whose research working group developed and implemented advanced tools for evaluating forest fire risk and for mapping burned areas at the European scale.
The EFFIS fights forests fires in Europe by addressing pre-fire and post-fire conditions. It liaises with the Commission's Environment DG in order to reach those who stand to benefit most from the information, the final users, civil protection and forest services in the Member States. The EFFIS also serves to share information between Member States.
For example, analysing large fires with satellites can give early assessment of their effects on European forests and protected areas, such as Natura 2000 sites. Before fires occur, the EFFIS can even provide a ‘risk forecast' based on existing fire risk indices, and on new integrated and harmonised forest fire risk indicators, Europe-wide.
The tools can help authorities assess fire hazards requiring international co-operation to protect civilian populations. This is all available on the EFFIS website and is sent as risk alerts to respective Member State services daily during the peak fire season, from 1 May to 31 October.
The EFFIS, serving a network with representatives from 19 countries, also works after fires are over estimating annual damage caused by forest fires in the southern EU as part of its Forest Fire in Europe assessments. Since 2000, in EFFIS' ‘Damage Assessment', all burned areas over 50 ha are mapped every year using satellite imagery. In 2003, a new forest fire ‘Rapid Damage Assessment' – issued at the beginning of August and early October – was developed to map flare-ups larger than 100 ha occurring during the fire season.
Other features of the EFFIS include an EU Fire Database which contains the forest fire information compiled by various Member States. According to the EFFIS website, the findings of research projects underway at the JRC will be incorporated into the EFFIS in coming years. These topics relate to the post-fire phase and refer to forest fire atmospheric emissions, vegetation regeneration, and post-fire risk analysis, in particular.
In addition, under an EU regulation adopted in late 2003, Member States are asked to report on the national situations concerning forest fire monitoring activities, which include studies identifying the causes and dynamics of forest fires, as well as their impacts on forests, awareness-raising campaigns and special training for agents involved in fire prevention, and other measures not included in the national/regional rural development programmes.
According to the Agriculture DG website, the majority of fire causes (where a cause is identified) are traced back to deliberate burn-offs or the burning of agricultural waste and stubble after harvesting. Other causes, it continues, are unauthorised waste dumping, forestry work, electricity lines and trains, hunting and shooting, and miscellaneous accidents (cigarettes, barbecues, etc.).
EFFIS, JRC DG