Researchers Predict More Intense Wildfires in Europe

Climate and cultural changes mean more fuel is available for the fires. Researchers recommend some forestry practices to mitigate future mega-blazes.
By Paolo DeAndreis
Dec. 8, 2022 17:21 UTC

The dev­as­tat­ing wild­fires that burned across large por­tions of south­west­ern Europe dur­ing 2022 may soon become nor­mal for the region, new research warns.

The study, pub­lished in Science of The Total Environment, found that cur­rent for­est man­age­ment poli­cies are insuf­fi­cient to pre­vent future wild­fires, which are increas­ingly fueled by the impacts of cli­mate change.

Enacting the cur­rent European poli­cies about forestry will not solve the prob­lem,” Victor Resco de Dios, pro­fes­sor of for­est engi­neer­ing and cli­mate change at the University of Lleida and co-author of the research, told Olive Oil Times. On the con­trary, it will worsen.”

See Also:Temperatures Rising Faster in Europe than Anywhere Else, Report Finds

The study showed how the amount of land burned by wild­fires is grow­ing rapidly in Portugal, Spain and France. In some areas, 52 times more land was burned this sum­mer com­pared to the 2001 to 2021 aver­age.

According to the researchers, wild­fires cov­er­ing more than 500 hectares occurred ear­lier in the cur­rent sea­son than in the past, tak­ing place between June and July.

However, larger wild­fires accounted for only 12 per­cent of all recorded events. Still, they were respon­si­ble for 82 per­cent of the total area burned, with pro­tected areas com­pris­ing 47 per­cent of that total.

Wood, bushes, leaves and under­growth fuel the blazes. These anom­alies [the wild­fire inten­sity] were asso­ci­ated with record-break­ing val­ues of fuel dry­ness, atmos­pheric water demand and pyro-mete­o­ro­log­i­cal con­di­tions,” the authors wrote.

Live fuel mois­ture con­tent was below the his­tor­i­cal min­i­mum for almost 50 per­cent of the sea­son in some regions,” they added.

In total, 469,464 hectares burned across the three coun­tries by the end of September, three times more than the aver­age burn is between 2006 and 2021.

Resco warned that the phe­nom­e­non is grow­ing. We are not tak­ing care of the fuel,” he said.

The research showed that the con­di­tions to ignite mas­sive blazes had built up over the past decades.

The fuel is accu­mu­lat­ing so that when the weather gets dry, large blazes will eas­ily spark,” Resco said.

The envi­ron­ment dries out as the weather reaches new extremes due to cli­mate change, includ­ing higher sur­face tem­per­a­tures and pro­longed heat waves. The most imme­di­ate con­se­quence is that more fuel becomes avail­able.

What is hap­pen­ing today is a con­se­quence of local soci­eties’ major changes,” Resco said. Decades ago, the wide­spread increase in the use of fos­sil fuels quickly dimin­ished the use of wood and bio­mass.

The blazes’ fuel we are see­ing today has grown con­sid­er­ably in the last 60 to 70 years,” he said. With the growth of the indus­trial cities in the Mediterranean basin and the pro­gres­sive aban­don­ment of rural areas, the con­di­tions to develop cur­rent wild­fires have been set.”

Fossil fuels brought us two effects: cli­mate change and fires,” Resco added. Today, when we have a sum­mer with fewer wild­fires, we con­sider it a good sum­mer; maybe the weather was not too hot and so on. But we are build­ing the con­di­tions for the blazes to strike. Should it not be this year, then it will be the next one.”


The researchers said shrub­lands, tran­si­tional wood­lands and conifer forests are most affected by wild­fires.

We have spe­cial con­nec­tiv­ity among forests mainly through the under­growth,” Resco said. Also, we have con­nected canopies, so the fire can quickly climb up to the tops of the trees and spread that way.”

When a wild­fire starts in one region, the fuel cover allows it to spread quickly and in large areas.

As a result, it is not sur­pris­ing that the largest por­tion of the blazes takes place in pro­tected areas, lands where trees grow unob­structed, and the under­growth remains untouched.

Abandonment of olive groves and other agri­cul­tural lands is another rel­e­vant source of con­nec­tiv­ity among at-risk regions.

In these areas, wild­fires have sig­nif­i­cant social and eco­nomic impacts. They affect rural economies by reduc­ing the prof­itabil­ity of small farm­ers, occa­sion­ally result­ing in fur­ther land aban­don­ment.

The researchers wrote that these con­di­tions may cre­ate a feed­back loop, where fire enhances land aban­don­ment, which then increases fuel con­nec­tiv­ity and fuel loads and con­se­quently fur­ther increases wild­fire activ­ity.”

The ideal coun­ter­mea­sure would be mosaic-like land man­age­ment, where forests are bor­dered by farms, orchards and man­aged green areas,” Resco added.

Studies have shown that land aban­don­ment rarely trans­lates into the enrich­ment of bio­di­ver­sity,” he said. These stud­ies show that mosaic-like man­aged land­scape would be a bet­ter option for bio­di­ver­sity.”

Mosaic-like regions would also impede the devel­op­ment of larger wild­fires, which can­not be effi­ciently con­trolled. They would reduce the avail­abil­ity of the mate­ri­als that fuel the largest wild­fires, pre­vent­ing more land from being burned and decreas­ing the time required for it to recover.

If mosaic-like het­ero­ge­neous land is not prof­itable enough to main­tain, Resco said plenty still could be done to reduce wild­fire risks dras­ti­cally.

The land­scape should be dis­sected into areas in such a way to avoid the con­ti­nu­ity,” he said. We could then man­age some strate­gic loca­tions where the risk is higher.”

For exam­ple, he cited the need to safe­guard areas where spe­cific moun­tain topogra­phies con­tribute to the spread of blazes.

These include wood­lands at the base of a val­ley, where wild­fires can quickly spread to for­est cover on sur­round­ing slopes.

The researchers said cur­rent pro­jec­tions show that this year’s mete­o­ro­log­i­cal con­di­tions might become the norm by 2035.

Therefore, they spec­u­late that 2022 might be a turn­ing point where… extreme wild­fire sea­sons may increase due to inter­ac­tions between an increas­ingly warm­ing cli­mate and mas­sive fuel accu­mu­la­tions.”

As we can see in other stud­ies, we are reach­ing the point where moun­tain regions such as the Pyrenees or the Alps are becom­ing flam­ma­ble,” Resco warned.

He sug­gested that some mod­els show an increas­ing pos­si­bil­ity of wild­fire mega-events in those areas.

Such a con­di­tion might mean that half of the Pyrenees could burn in a sin­gle fire event,” Resco said. This is the mag­ni­tude we are look­ing at.”

Due to the increas­ing like­li­hood of this type of sce­nario, the authors lamented how the cur­rent envi­ron­men­tal strate­gies of the European Union, focused on bio­di­ver­sity and envi­ron­men­tal restora­tion, under­es­ti­mate the impact of wild­fires.

So far, wild­fires are sim­ply added a tagline in E.U.‘s for­est strate­gies and leg­is­la­tion,” the researchers wrote.

Our results indi­cate how the wild­fire prob­lem is on the rise,” they con­cluded. We thus rec­om­mend a stronger role for wild­fire pre­ven­tion within forestry poli­cies on a con­ti­nen­tal scale.”


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