The heatwave across central and northern Europe is preparing the ground for a severe wildfire season. Normally mostly green vegetation is turning into “fuel” in countries normally not affected by serious fire problems. Hereby I am referring to countries not prepared for a wildfire season (compared to the Mediterranean areas, who are dealing with frequent forest fires), despite the climate change scenarios and increasing risks and disturbance predictions.
We have reported here on this blog about the fire situation and early warning systems in the UK, Ireland, and Germany already. Now Scandinavia is receiving a lot of media attention. Sweden for instance is calling for international assistance:
“Wildfires rage in Arctic Circle as Sweden calls for help. Sweden worst hit as hot, dry summer sparks unusual number of fires, with at least 11 in the far north” (source: The Guardian) or
“Swedish firefighters were still battling 49 different wildfires across the country on Thursday afternoon, and in some areas residents have been asked to leave for their safety. Here’s where evacuations have taken place.” (source: The Local)
As we can see from this and most other media articles, reports focus on the weather, the heat and fires and smoke and on helicopters as well as water-bombing aircraft. And that is what you need in a out-of-control fire situation: Hit the fire fast and hard. And for that you need resources like planes, absolutely.
However, what I do miss in most news articles is the fact that the crisis management cycle has more phases than just the response. Is that single focused reporting maybe a reason for the political ignorance of urgent needs for prevention and mitigation?
On 6th of June 2018, EFI Bonn’s principal scientist Marcus Lindner and I, Junior researcher Laura Nikinmaa escaped tropical Germany to cool down in the Mediterranean Solsona, Spain, and to participate in the conference “COMMUNICATING RISKS IN Decision Support Systems: from basic research to advanced decision support tools” with 30 other researchers. Hosted by the Forest Science Centre of Catalonia (CTFC), the conference was organized by the SuFoRun project and IUFRO’s Risk Analysis working group 4.04.07. The program provided plenty diverse presentations ranging from using real option analysis to deal with uncertainties to effects of bark stripping on wind resistance of Norway spruce.
Thanks to the careful observation of colleagues at Universidade de Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro (UTAD) we are able to report an unusual “record”: As of 11 June 2018, the largest burnt forest area in this year so far in Europe can be found in the United Kingdom. We are looking at 8049 ha of burnt area – that is more than the combined burnt area of Spain, Portugal, France and Italy together.
The cold Czech winter offered a warm welcome when the participants of the kick-off event of the project “Sustaining and Enhancing the REsilience of European Forest” (SURE) started in Písek, Czech Republic, on 18th of February. More than 50 scientists, practitioners and policy makers from 19 different European countries gathered to exchange experiences with forests risks and related disturbances. Hosted by Pro Silva Bohemica and European Forest Institute, the event was the kick-off for the collaboration towards a European Forest Risk Facility.
Central Europe is experiencing a rare weather phenomenon:
A polar vortex has caused Arctic air to suddenly warm up and send freezing cold south towards Central Europe, which has already suffered days of frigid weather. The event, known as a Sudden Stratospheric Warming (SSW), usually chills for two weeks or longer and brings widespread snow. It has not occurred for four years, official government (UK) records show, and last time brought the coldest March for 51 years to Scotland for instance.
However, while Europe is preparing for cold, snow and ice, we can observe a paradox phenomenon: Before the expected snow and ice is arriving, the current weather conditions do indeed increase fire danger. Dry air with RH (relative humidity) dropping as low as 30% and winds gusting up to 60 km/h make ideal conditions to burn winter-dry fuels.
Traditional prescribed burning at this time of the year should be carried out only with wind under 30 km/h and with utmost care.
End of January, I (the urban forestry consultant at EFI’s Resilience Programme) was invited by the Beijing Forestry and Parks Department of International Cooperation for a study visit and a training on urban forestry. China is one of the leading countries when it comes to afforestation: in 2018 alone, about 6.6 million hectare new forests (or the size or Ireland) will be planted. The new forests are not only situated in the rural areas, but also in and near urban agglomerations. In the last Beijing province (area: 16.000 km², inhabitants: 22 million) for example, about 67.000 ha additional forest has been planted over five years, mainly for landscape and aesthetical reasons, but also for recreation purposes. In the next five years, they are aiming for an additional similar area.
The study tour started in one of the mayor urban redevelopment projects that Beijing has seen: the 2008 Olympic Quarter. The Olympic Park (680 ha) has been built on former built-up area and farmland, and is situated at the central North-South axis through Beijing which connects the Olympic Park with the central Tiananmen Square. The park includes an artificial lake where soil was reused for building an artificial hill. The composition of the park follows the traditional Chinese design of building with the back to the hills and the front to the water.
A rough estimate of (business) interest in aerial firefighting
In general, only 10% of a fire management budget is spent on fuel load management for prevention and 90 % are spent on fire suppression. In these 90% the majority again is dedicated to aerial assets. This article would like to stimulate a reflection on how to create more balance in the use of fire management budget.
This compilation of thoughts on the monetary benefits of aerial firefighting is not intended to be conclusive, but rather a suggestion – a suggestion that hopefully provokes further conversation among diverse stakeholders about how the urgently needed balance between fire suppression (response) and land- and forest management (prevention, mitigation, resilience) can be reached.
This short text does clearly not intend to say we do not need aerial firefighting. Of course we need any support that we can get while fighting unwanted fires. The intention however is to motivate equivalent political will and budget for prevention and mitigation, for increasing the resilience of the land and to make firefighting safer and more effective.
EFI Bonn’s fire risks senior expert Alexander Held was selected as a mentor for the Climate Change Immersive Story Accelerator Lookout360°, a new 6-month media support programme for journalists and producers who are eager to get started with immersive stories on climate change. The programme is a pilot project of the recently launched science-media initiative The Lookout Station initiated by European Forest Institute and the Global Editors Network.
Together with Alan Rusbridger, former editor-in-chief of Guardian News & Media
and Dr. John M. Reilly, Co-Director of MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, and other mentors, Alexander Held will support a group of 10 journalists by providing his expertise in forest fires, silviculture and deer management.
More information on the programme, trainers and mentors here.
Fire is not only a threat to forests and livelihoods in the rural areas. As the forest fire season takes on entirely new dimensions by getting longer and more intense, fire – and smoke related health hazards increase, warned an international study published in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics and reported by PhysOrg.
Burning vegetation releases small particulates, that are dangerous even in small quantities. According to the study, in countries with effective measures to reduce air pollution, wildfire emissions are not causing the average annual levels of small particles to surpass the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommended thresholds. However, emissions from fires do increase air pollution severely, which in turn can have grave consequences for human health. According to WHO, the range of health effects of the small particulates is broad, but are predominantly to the respiratory and cardiovascular systems. In principle, the longer the exposure to small particulates is, the more severe the impact on health is.
Tragically, it is estimated that more than 700 000 hectares of land have burned in 2017 alone. The data from European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS) points out that the majority of fires were caused by human activities. Additionally dry conditions paved the way for small fires to turn into uncontrollable wildfires. Both conditions, on the bright side, indicate that there is potential for fire prevention.
Currently, air quality policies do not include wildfires and the emissions they cause. Additionally, up until this point there is no widely approved way to manage wildfires. In the light of the late megafires, there is an urgent need to collaborate on the international level to find the best approach to manage and prevent wildfires. For the sake of our forests and our health.