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"We need wildfire prevention rather than fire suppression" – EFI-expert responds to EU's new rescEU plan

The European summer of 2017 had unprecedented amounts of natural disasters happening simultaneously, such as devastating forest fires in Portugal, immense storms in Germany and Greece an the UK, often followed by severe floods. It is estimated that natural disasters cost EU member states about 360 Billion Euro over the past 40 years, while over 200 people lost their lives in fires, storms and floods in 2017 alone.
Threatened by increasing magnitudes of climate change and destabilized by a lack of resources and cross border coordination, the EU faced the fact that something has to change. To boost Europe’s ability to better deal with natural disasters, the European Commission yesterday launched rescEU, an initiative to improve the European system to tackle natural disasters. The intention is to strengthen European response capacities on the one hand, and (maybe) more importantly to improve cooperation and coherence of disaster prevention and preparedness among European countries on the other hand.
“From the perspective of the European Forest Risk Facility hosted by European Forest Institute we welcome the statement of the commissioner, indeed we support his statement for more cooperation and prevention, hand in hand with adequate response to disasters”, says European Forest Institute’s (EFI) own senior expert on Forest-, Fire-, and Wildlife management Alexander Held.  However, we might have the wrong focus, also reflected in media coverage (like the German ZEIT), which so far focuses on the first aspect: suppression and fire control. A misallocation of money and resources, arisen due to misinformed people with a wish for a political spectacle, according to Held. “Large wildfires only occur through a combination of three things: an ignition, severe fire weather and a large contiguous accumulation of fuel. Take away the factors mankind cannot control, and you are left dealing with the accumulation of fuel – thus preemptive fire management. Broad scale fuel reduction burning (or grazing, mulching, mowing, converting to productive, valuable forest) is the only defense we have against large wildfires”, so Held. “Fire control through water bombers has its place, but is – just like any other case of symptom combating –  ineffective when dealing with large wildfires.”

Make sure you do not miss out on Alexander Held’s full statement on rescEU, as he makes a comprehensive case for allocating resources towards wildfire prevention rather than fire suppression. The statement is based on the expertise of the forest fire manager Held and does not necessarily reflect EFI’s viewpoint as an organization.


  1. Gesche Schifferdecker
    Gesche Schifferdecker November 28, 2017

    We just received a comment by Joaquim S. Silva from the University of Lisbon, School of Agriculture:
    Hi Alex, I basically agree with most of the text, but not so much when you say:
    “The only factor we can control is the large contiguous accumulations of fuel”
    At least for Portugal, there is a lot of work to be done on the reduction of ignition sources, mainly because of careless behaviour from citizens. We had more than 500 ignitions on the 15th October. Portugal deals every year with around 20 000 ignitions. So we cannot put the citizens outside the fire equation, since they are, at least for Europe and particularly in southern countries, one key variable that we should deal with.
    Also I am more and more sceptic about the utopia of being able to control the overwhelming forces of nature and the society, so as to be able to generalise the concept of landscapes that are less prone to fire. That can be done maybe in strategic areas (around villages, in fire breaks, promoting less flammable forests in some areas). But much of the landscape will continue to stay abandoned or poorly managed and very fire prone, mostly because there are not enough financial resources to significantly control the forces of nature (the build-up of fuels), and no political strength to go against the interests of individual land owners.

  2. Alexander Held
    Alexander Held November 28, 2017

    Hello Joaquim, especially in all the abandoned landscape I would wish for a “order from above” to tolerate the use of controlled, mild fire that would remove a lot of the dead fine fuel…..thank you for the discussion!! AH

  3. acheld
    acheld November 28, 2017

    Dear Joaquim, especially in the abandoned landscapes I would vote for a “order from above” to tolerate the use of controlled mild fire to remove the dead fine fuel before the fire season. It could work from the hills of Scotland, Ireland, Wales to Scandinavia, to Portugal, Spain and the the rest of the Mediterranean….but only with political will, you are absolutely right! Thank you for your opinion! AH

  4. Detlef Maushake
    Detlef Maushake November 29, 2017

    Dear Alexander and Joaquim, as a firefighter (from germany) with a lot of hands-on experience fighting wildland fires in the US, Portugal and some other countries I agree to both of you. I guess from a firefighters viewpoint there has to be suppression with keeping in mind the words of marc castellnou from the GRAF that we have to switch to a strategic viewpoint at some stage of developement of fires instead of chasing them with suppression tactics that are not valid anymore at that point in time. This suppression must be based on good and safe tactics including the use of fire and good management training for the overhead to choose between suppression and strategic fire management. Many countries especially in northern europe still don`t have an implemented training guide for wildfire suppression or use-of-fire regulations so far.
    On the other hand (not being an eceologist nor fire ecologist but a firefighter) with the base of training and experience we can then utilize the firefighters in the time of low fire danger to fuel reduction burning and fuel management to reach out for the goal of reduction of the biomass available to the fire and of course to reduce the WUI risk in some areas by cleaning the buffer zone.
    This might also lead to more education and knowledge of the people living in these fire prone areas to undergo a mindchange to the careful use of fires or even fire avoidance in the high danger times instead of negligence and carelessness leading to severe fires in the past.
    I keep my fingers crossed that we will all work together in the future to achieve the goals to reduce the effects of fires in the landscapes.
    Detlef Maushake

  5. Bob Connolly
    Bob Connolly February 19, 2018

    Hi Alex it is great to see European countries working together on fire management. I loved your article on aerial fire suppression. In South Africa we seem to be going backwards focus on fire suppression not fire management. We were starting to do more prescribed burns but the more affluent uneducated public had lots of objections. Do not understand that fuel reduction and nature conservation burns go together. Fire risk is increasing all over the country and big business is selling fire suppression. More funds available if you create an emergency and force the state and landowners to spend more on suppression. South Africa was leading in applied prescribed burns but except for a few areas seems be concentrating on fire suppression. Not good for nature or people. Luckily some areas like the Kruger National Park are still using prescribed fire extensively but they are the exception.

  6. […] the alarming fire numbers mentioned earlier. When rescEu published the plan, we expressed some concern. Despite prevention is mentioned in the rescEU plan, most of the attention and budget flow into […]

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