About one million hectares of forests, which corresponds to one third the size of Belgium, are destroyed by fire every year in the Mediterranean basin. Forests are an important economic resource in that region, and the loss of forests weighs on the economies of the affected countries, especially in North Africa where a warming of 2 degrees Celsius and decreasing rainfall has been recorded. It is expected that climate change in North Africa will substantially increase the yearly losses to fire.
In 1998, the European Commission's in-house science service, the Joint Research Centre (JRC), created a research group to develop advanced methods for the evaluation of forest-fire danger, and the mapping of burnt areas, covering the whole of Europe. The European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS) became operational in 2000. Over the years, most EU member states, and neighboring countries, including Turkey, joined the network. "The main objective of EFFIS is providing support to forest and civil protection services of the EU and the Member States," says Jesus San Miguel Ayanz, a JRC researcher and the coordinator of EFFIS.
EFFIS developed several techniques that allow a better assessment of fire damage and high risk areas. Methods to rapidly assess fire damage in Europe were introduced in 2000, allowing the creation of European forest fire danger maps and real-time high-resolution fire damage maps that are updated daily. These maps are available on the web to the public and indicate fire-danger zones for seven days. "What we predict is the probability that a fire could spread over a very large area," says San Miguel Ayanz, who adds that the warning time will be extended to 15 days in the future: "This information increases the preparedness of these countries, they can reshuffle the means for firefighting that they have". These forecasts are based on daily weather forecasts for all of Europe obtained from metrological services. The aim of the forecasts is to increase fire prevention, preparedness, and fire fighting capabilities. EFFIS also set up a European-scale database of forest fires, encouraging a number of countries to join.
An interesting result is that the number of fires and burnt has not increased in the last decade, probably thanks to a quicker response by firefighters. This possibly mitigates the effect of climate change, argues San Miguel Ayanz, which has been noticeable. "The fire season is becoming longer, instead of June to September, it now extends from March to October".
A network of experts on forest fire meets regularly with the EFFIS members. Recently, representatives of countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA): Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Lebanon and Syria took part in these meetings, and plans are now on the table to include MENA countries in the EFFIS network; they are expected to join EFFIS in 2012. "I am very positive that we will have them on board," say San Miguel Ayanz. Some countries have already set up bilateral collaborations, such as Italy with Tunisia and Spain with Morocco, he reports.
Advantages for MENA countries will be the availability of experts to build up a network and also the possibility of applying many of the technologies already in use in Europe. For the European Mediterranean countries, experience gained in North Africa will allow them to prepare for similar conditions of global warming expected to take place in about 20 years.
Another important role of EFFIS is the dissemination of scientific information. "We try to use EFFIS as much as possible to link their research findings to the operations," says San Miguel Ayanz. Research findings are presented at the experts´ meetings. "We are dealing with members from forest services and civil protection, and they are usually not so aware of new research results. It is a good instrument to link research and policy making at the operational level."