A forest fire is an uncontrolled fire that occurs in nature. Climatic conditions have an important impact on the severity of forest fires with particular high risks during long dry spells. Weather conditions such as precipitation and wind, vegetation, the layout of the terrain as well as forest management practices are important factors that determine the dimensions of the forest fire. In 2018, forest fires affected not only the Mediterranean region, but also Sweden, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Finland, and Latvia – all countries in which forest fires have not been a concern in the past. Lives were lost, livelihoods destroyed and many hectares of land burned.
The risk of fires is expected to further increase due to climate change, and will be increasingly characterised by extreme fires that cost lives and burned areas that take longer to fully recover. Between 2007 and 2018, 31% of all requests for assistance through the European Union Civil Protection Mechanism were in response to forest fires. In 2018, they represented the biggest share (35%) of requests for assistance per type of emergency, followed by medical and environmental related emergencies. The total burned area in Europe in 2017 was 1.2 million hectares – an area larger than the size of the Republic of Cyprus.
When a forest fire gets too big for a country to extinguish on its own, the European Union Civil Protection Mechanism can be activated to provide a coordinated, rapid and effective international response. When fires of this magnitude occur, Participating States regularly show solidarity by sending assistance in the form of firefighting planes, helicopters, firefighting equipment and teams.
The European Union Civil Protection Mechanism coordinates pan-European assistance and ensures that all Participating States to the Mechanism receive timely information in times of crises and emergencies. Upon its activation by any country in the world, the Mechanism ensures the rapid deployment of resources and personnel tailor-made to the needs of each individual emergency.
At the operational heart of the Mechanism lies the European Commission's Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC). The Centre monitors forest fire risks and emergencies across Europe around the clock, supported by national monitoring services such as the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS). Each year at the beginning of the forest fire season, the Centre organises meetings with national authorities from Participating States to exchange information on the state of prevention, preparedness and response activities and maintains close contact with national authorities throughout the forest fire season. Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Greece and Croatia are the most fire-prone countries in Europe but recent events have shown that northern European Countries are not immune.
When national response capacities to forest fires are surpassed, the Mechanism coordinates assistance in the form of forest fire fighting aircrafts and helicopters, fire-fighting equipment, and personnel. Additionally, the Mechanism can co-finance the transport of assistance to the affected area.
For the 2018 forest fire season, the European Commission co-financed the stand-by availability of additional aerial forest firefighting capacities to address potential shortcomings in responding to fires. Two Canadair firefighting airplanes from Italy and two Air Tractor airplanes from Spain were available to be deployed to a fire, as they formed part of a voluntary pool of resources officially known as the European Emergency Response Capacity.
In 2017, the Mechanism was activated 18 times for forest fire emergencies in Europe. Portugal, Italy, Montenegro, France, and Albania all received assistance via the Mechanism to respond to forest fires. Following a request from the government of Chile, the EU Civil Protection Mechanism was activated. This allowed the EU to help Chile fight the worst forest fires in its history through support from Portugal, Spain, and France, along with an EU Civil Protection team of nine experts.
In addition, the Copernicus Emergency Management Service (EMS) regularly produces satellite maps on demand to help national authorities respond to forest fire emergencies. In 2018, the Copernicus programme produced 135 maps to monitor forest fires.
In addition to the response, the European Commission supports and complements prevention and preparedness efforts of Participating States by focusing on areas where a joint European approach is more effective than separate national actions. These include risk assessments to identify the disaster risks across the EU, encouraging research to promote disaster resilience and reinforcing early warning tools.
Prevention, preparedness and response are closely intertwined areas to save human lives and limit the further spread of fires. Having experienced forest fire experts, well-trained firefighters, technology and other assets available near the forest fire are essential. National and regional authorities of Participating States manage forest fire prevention, preparedness and response activities.
The EU actively supports forest fire prevention and fighting, the restoration of burned lands, and education and awareness raising measures through its Regional Development Fund and Rural Development Fund.