SITUATION UPDATE 5 August, 2022 Back
Situation Update - dry weather triggers large wildfires across Europe
- Several countries in Europe have witnessed a series of large wildfires amid soaring temperatures and prolonged dry conditions, the most notable of which have taken place in western Europe and across the Mediterranean.
- The number of EU-based wildfires in 2022 has already reached four times that of the 15-year average for the same annual time period.
- Wildfires this year have caused mass evacuations, significant disruptions, structural damages and casualties.
- Meteorologists attribute the more intense and more frequent heatwaves in Europe to climate change, which in turn has been largely blamed on human activities.
- High temperatures and dry conditions are forecast to persist across Europe over the coming month, increasing the risk of further large wildfires.
- Further adverse weather events have the potential to trigger protest action by climate activists, particularly in the lead up to the COP27 climate change conference set to be held in Egypt in November.
In recent months, Europe has experienced a series of large wildfires amid soaring temperatures and prolonged drought conditions. Reports state that the number of EU-based wildfires this year have already reached four times that of the 15-year average for the same annual time period. Mass evacuations, significant structural damage and casualties have been recorded, with the most notable blazes occurring in western Europe and across the Mediterranean.
The most significant wildfires so far in 2022 were recorded in July, during a period where record breaking temperatures were documented in several locations in Europe. In France, Gironde Department has been the worst impacted, with over 37,000 people forced to evacuate due to two large fires that burned simultaneously. President Emmanuel Macron said a blaze in Landiras was “one of the biggest in French history”, and located around 58 kilometres away, the La Teste-de-Buch fire burned around 7,000 hectares. France is currently in its third official heatwave of the year, with six departments under an 'orange alert' for heat and 60 at a “crisis” level for drought. In addition, Spain, Portugal and Greece have also been experiencing prolonged hot, dry conditions.
The European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS) suggests that Spain is experiencing its worst season of wildfires in terms of area burned since its records began in 2008. Notably, the EFFIS has estimated that so far this year more than 226,000 hectares of land has been burned by wildfires in Spain, equal to around 38.5 percent of the total area burned by fires in the whole continent. Worst impacted areas in Spain include communities in Extremadura, Castile and Leon, Galicia, Aragon, Madrid and Castile-La Mancha. The largest fire recorded in the country so far in 2022 was in the province of Zamora. At least 25,000 hectares were burned and more than 6,000 people were evacuated from 32 villages in the area. Two people died and at least three others were injured. Spain also recorded its first named heatwave, “Zoe”, in Seville which saw temperatures reach over 43.3 degrees Celsius (°C). Seville became the first city globally to introduce a pilot program to name and classify heatwaves similarly to hurricanes and other major weather events.
Parts of mainland Portugal are currently under a state of alert due to a heightened risk of wildfires. The measure was imposed on 8 July and was originally due to expire on 15 July; however, persistent hot, dry conditions have resulted in the extension of the declaration in some areas. The state of alert gives the government temporary authority to order precautionary measures to mitigate the risk of wildfires. Restrictions currently in place include a public ban from forests deemed to be at particular risk, a ban on the use of farm machinery that might produce sparks, and a ban on the use of fireworks. Interior minister José Luís Carneiro has said that the government is undertaking a re-evaluation of the country's fire risk situation. In the height of the latest heatwave in mid-July, Portuguese authorities recorded 170 wildfires in a single day across the country, with three-times more land burnt so far this year than on average during the summer months. So far, the Algarve region and the districts of Leiria and Santarém have been worst impacted, as well as the municipality of Mafra. Sources suggest that a total of 30,000 hectares have been burnt by wildfires in July alone, with efforts ongoing to fully extinguish a blaze that is burning in the municipality of Mafra near the town of Venda do Pinheiro.
Brush and grass fires are not uncommon in Greece, with a large number of small, rural blazes known to occur in the summer months. Though so far this year, a considerable increase of these types of fires has been recorded, with dry, hot conditions making them more difficult to control. Notable fires have been recorded in the Vatera area of Lesbos, Krestena, Dadia and at Mount Pentelicus, north-east of Athens. In Italy, wildfires have been recorded in several parts of the country, with the highest heatwave alert imposed in almost all regions during periods of the last month. Temperatures exceeded 40°C during mid-July, with wildfires recorded in the Tuscany, Basilicata and Trieste regions. Elsewhere in Europe, wildfires have also been reported in Albania, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Germany, Malta, Romania, Slovenia, Turkey and the United Kingdom, the latter of which imposed its first red "extreme heat" warning for parts of England.
Analysis and Implications
Wildfires are common in Europe in the summer months; however, in recent years the fire season has been starting earlier and there has been an increase in the numbers of blazes recorded. This has been attributed to a rise in temperatures and the prevalence of drought conditions. Last year, more than half a million hectares burned in the European Union, making it the bloc’s second-worst forest fire season on record after 2017.
Meteorologists and other experts say that the intensity and frequency of heatwave and drought conditions are fuelled by climate change, both of which are defining factors for the increase of large wildfire outbreaks. This means that as long as the effects of climate change continue, heatwaves and subsequently the outbreak of large wildfires, will likely be more intense and occur more frequently in the coming years. Notably, a study in the journal Nature in July found that heatwaves in Europe have increased three-to-four times faster than in other northern mid-latitudes such as the United States. The authors linked this to changes in the jet streams within the Earth's atmosphere.
It is not just heatwaves and wildfires that are likely to intensify and become more frequent in Europe due to the effects of climate change. As witnessed in western Germany and eastern Belgium last July, periods of heavy rainfall and flooding appear to have also become more intense in recent years.
Scientists have found that human activities, such as burning fossil fuels and deforestation, have played a major role in the increase in global temperatures. Dr Friederike Otto, of Imperial College London, said 40°C in the UK, which was recorded in England on 19 July, “would have been extremely unlikely or virtually impossible without human-caused climate change”. Due to the adverse impacts of human activity on climate change, nearly 200 parties agreed to and set out numerous measures under the global 2015 Paris Agreement to cut emissions in order to limit global warming to below 2°C,though aiming for 1.5°C, to avoid its most dangerous impacts. However, environmentalists and climate activists have criticised the current policies, claiming they would not cut emissions fast enough to meet either goal.
Consequently, humans are being impacted by the adverse conditions formed as a result of the change in climate, with excess deaths being recorded during the recent heatwave. For the period of 11 to 24 July, the Spanish monitoring system listed 1,682 heat-related deaths, while Portugal’s Director-General of Health Graça Freitas said more than 1,000 people had died between 7 and 18 July alone. Heat stress and dehydration are known to worsen pre-existing conditions, particularly respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. Accident risk is another factor, with over 12 people killed by drowning in the UK in the last month.
Forest management and ignition sources are also important factors. According to EU data, more than nine out of 10 wildfires in Europe are ignited by human activities, including arson, disposable barbeques, electricity lines, or littered glass. Arrests have been made in connection with recent wildfires in France and Portugal, due to suspected arson. Moreover, countries, including Spain, face the challenge of shrinking populations in rural areas as people move to cities, leaving a smaller workforce to clear vegetation and dry scrub that could spark forest fires. In an attempt to combat this, authorities are increasingly burning down some vegetation, under carefully managed conditions, to make it harder for wildfires to spread.
With meteorologists predicting that high temperatures will persist in the coming month, there is the potential for further large wildfires in Europe for the remainder of the summer season. While temperatures are unlikely to reach the same record-breaking levels as previously seen this year, the persistent lack of rainfall, which continues to hinder extinguishing efforts, combined with the heat and high winds are considerably favourable conditions for wildfires that can rapidly spread out of control.
Some of the largest wildfires in Europe this year have resulted in the closure of major highways, including essential routes linking rural communities, as well as causing disruption to flight operations and rail travel. Not only can these blazes be located near transport routes, but high volumes of smoke can impact visibility and cause significant transport disruptions. Wildfires can also disrupt communications, power and water services, as well as result in the emission of harmful toxins. Adverse air quality is not uncommon in locations in close proximity to wildfires. There have been instances of people situated in the localities of fires being admitted to hospital with smoke inhalation. In addition, the evacuation of some communities has resulted in business closures and work stoppages.
The ongoing debate regarding climate change continues to spark protest action from climate activist groups. The most recent heatwave prompted an uptick in demonstrations from activists who accuse large corporations of not doing enough to help prevent further climate deterioration. Most notably in the UK, along the M25 motorway and outside the News UK headquarters in London for example, activist groups including Extinction Rebellion, Just Stop Oil and Greenpeace have conducted direct action towards a number of large companies in the last month, with additional actions planned. As European countries continue to witness extreme weather events, climate activists will likely stage further protest action demanding more action from governments across Europe to set more ambitious targets to cut emissions. Such events will likely gain momentum in the lead up to the COP27 climate change conference summit, slated to be held in Egypt in November.
- If situated in close proximity to any wildfires, ensure ventilation points, such as windows and doors, are closed to avoid smoke inhalation.
- Adhere to all advice issued by the authorities and cooperate with any evacuation orders quickly and safely.
- Be aware of the potential for road closures and the suspension of public transport services, as well as disruption to airport operations, in the event of further adverse weather events.