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The Joint Research Centre (JRC) is the European Commission's science and knowledge service which employs scientists to carry out research in order to provide independent scientific advice and support to EU policy.
EU countries should develop a more integrated approach to prevent accidents caused by wildfires in urban areas and industrial plants, a report by the JRC and IRIS - Industrial Risk and Safety Solutions - recommends.
The development of the report has been supported by the Commission’s department for Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (DG ECHO).
The report comes at a time when an increased danger of wildfire-related catastrophes at industrial sites and inhabited spaces looms.
Wildfires not only became more numerous in recent years but also more countries are now compelled to tackle them. They are not restricted to the Mediterranean space anymore but reach Northern Europe as well. In recent years, fires have taken place even above the Arctic Circle.
Several factors contribute to the increased risk. Successful forest conservation efforts mean that there is more fuel available for fires. The stock felled makes up only two-thirds of woodland grown during the last decades.
Secondly, as the climate changes, forests have become more and more dry and dead material piled up in them, which are likelier to be set ablaze.
Furthermore, sprawling cities and intensely cultivated agriculture lands get into contact with forest areas more often. In some regions up to half of the surface area can be seen as a so-called “Wildland Urban Interface” (WUI).
While Europe so far avoided industrial calamities caused by wildfires, it had to deal with a few close calls, creating a sense of urgency for coming up with a more comprehensive action plan for disaster preparedness in so-called “Wildland Industrial Interfaces” (WII).
The European Commission’s Seveso-III Directive from 2012 lists a host of measures to be implemented against major accident hazards.
It mostly focuses on minimising industrial sites’ negative impact on people and the environment, but also requires consideration of their own vulnerability to events in nature like wildfires.
However, there is no integrated European fire management system that would meet the requirements for preventing industrial accidents caused by wildfires.
The authors of the JRC report therefore argue that a combined effort of a wider range of stakeholders, such as plant operators, forest management, land use planners, or researchers should be included in accident prevention and preparedness in WII, among other recommendations.
Wildfires can harm urban spaces and industrial plants in a number of ways, sometimes triggering a cascade of events.
While the direct impact of flames or the heat caused by burning surroundings are the most obvious sources of hazard, sometimes people and buildings suffer before the fire front reaches them.
Embers and burning debris particles (firebrands) can get into contact with combustible roofs, windows, or air intakes, creating spot fires, which then fan out. Toxic smoke can get into cars attempting to drive through it, causing deaths.
Pipelines for transporting oil and gas, fuel storage facilities, external floating roof tanks for combustible liquids are especially vulnerable to the spread of wildfires.
A lot depends on where industrial plants are built. Places with low moisture, high wind speeds and upward slopes are especially prone to fire propagation.
However, even if a good location was chosen, plant operators rely on external actors for keeping wildfire risk low.
Forest management should keep vegetation in check, while knowing that sometimes less is more. In the US, the practice of aggressively suppressing wildfires, which are part of the natural renewal of forest ecosystems, left more fuel for fires that did occur, making them more violent.
Crops can act as bridges, carrying fire from the forest to industrial facilities, something that land use planners must keep in mind.
Raising awareness among the population nearby can help, too. Cleaning gutters, mowing lawns, and retrofitting windows are small measures that can make a difference in slowing fires down.
Researchers can design and run early warning systems and models that trace the route of fires. The JRC’s own European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS), which is also supported by DG ECHO, is a prime example for this.
When fires do happen, it is imperative that firefighters are trained in the special considerations that industrial complexes require. Imprecise aerial firefighting, for instance, can damage sensitive process installations, so dousing from the ground is preferred if possible.
To take all this into account, the authors of the report drew up a series of recommendations for policy-makers, industry operators, first responders and scientists.
Policy-makers, among other things, should come up with multi-stakeholder activities to promote wildfire safety.
Industrial operators are called to hold regular exchanges with local forest owners and land use planners.
Emergency responders should be better equipped to deal with large-scale events appearing simultaneously, such as chemical accidents provoked by wildfire.
The full list of recommendations can be found in the report.