As the science and knowledge service of the European Commission, the Joint Research Centre's mission is to support EU policies with independent evidence throughout the whole policy cycle.
An article on the main causes of forest fires in Europe, co-authored by scientists from the JRC and IRSTEA (French national research Institute of S&T for environment and agriculture), has been recently published in the Environmental Management journal. The article analyses the factors driving forest fire ignition in the EU Mediterranean region, where most (85%) of European forest fires are recorded.
Forest fires are started by a wide range of human and environmental causal factors. Human agents are the main cause of forest fire ignition, either deliberately or by accident, and are directly or indirectly responsible for over 97% of all European forest fires.
Since the Holocene, fire has played a critical role in the structure and functioning of many ecosystems, particularly in the Mediterranean basin and similar areas. It has long been used as a traditional management tool in agriculture, silviculture and livestock breeding. Socioeconomics also play an indirect role on forest fires driving land use changes, affecting the density of infrastructures in natural areas or shaping human behaviour. For example areas of social conflicts tend to suffer higher levels of fire occurrence caused by arson. Arson is not only one of the main causes of fires in the Mediterranean region but also the least understood.
Weather, fuel composition and topography are the main environmental driving factors, although factors such as population density and play a major role in shaping the risk of forest fires.
The article reports that changes in societal patterns over the past decades have led to changes in the main causes of fire ignition, with less fires being caused deliberately and more due to negligence, given the current land use / land cover change patterns.