There have never been so many fires in Europe
More than three times the average of the last 17 years. The consequences on the environment and on our health are devastating. A study by Istituto Oikos shows us the possible solutions to this emergency.
An area as vast as the entire Friuli-Venezia Giulia region (Italy) was engulfed in flames, favoured by summer heatwaves of an intensity never before recorded by meteoclimatologists. The summer of 2022 was in fact the hottest in continental history. High temperatures, low atmospheric humidity and strong winds are the main ‘ingredients’ of fire weather, i.e. those meteorological conditions that greatly facilitate the spread of flames triggered in the vast majority of cases by human hand, whether accidentally or deliberately.
The year 2022 that has just ended was a true annus horribilis for fires in Europe. The 2709 fires recorded by EFFIS (European Forest Fire Information System) are more than three times the average of the last 17 years.
Causes and consequences: a perverse vicious circle
In the climate change scenario, the increase in fires is certainly one of the main consequences of rising temperatures. But through a perverse vicious circle, the huge masses of CO2 emitted by the burning of forests, shrublands, abandoned pastures and agricultural areas in turn contribute to increasing the effects of global warming. EFFIS estimates that total emissions from forest fires in the EU and UK in 2022 were 9 megatonnes of carbon, equivalent to those emitted by 10,000,000 cars in the same period, the highest level since 2007.
Not only climate change: landscape change also contributes to increased fire risk. For at least seven decades, Europe’s rural areas have suffered two socio-environmental phenomena that have contributed to the increase of combustible material in the environment. On the one hand, the abandonment of agricultural and pastoral areas has favoured a progressive encroachment of shrub and tree vegetation in areas once occupied by meadows, fields, orchards and sparse shrublands. On the other, large-scale forestation plans were initiated in numerous territories affected by rural depopulation (e.g. in Spain, Turkey and southern France), mainly between the 1960s and 1990s. Plantations focused on fast-growing species – mainly pine and eucalyptus – and further increased the extent of dense woody vegetation cover.
Reducing emissions from fires: the MediterRE3 project
Istituto Oikos, together with four European partners, is trying to intervene in this increasingly urgent problem: MediterRE3 is the name of a project promoting fire-smart land management practices. The objective is ambitious: to reduce greenhouse gas emissions generated by fires in 3 Mediterranean forest nature parks (Luberon, in France, Prokletije, in Montenegro and Samaria, in Greece).
Actions aim to reduce flammable biomass and increase environmental diversity by restoring the typical environmental mosaic of the southern European landscape. A modelling study conducted by Istituto Oikos shows that good fire-smart landscape management practices on just 5% of the high-risk territory are effective in reducing the area burned annually by 14%. This also helps to reduce CO2 emissions and achieve the climate neutrality targets set for 2050 by the European Union’s Climate Target Plan.
Several documents have recently been drafted as part of the project, including an in-depth analysis of fire-smart landscapes in the Mediterranean region. The publication contains examples of best practices in various parts of Europe and a vulnerability assessment of the three target landscapes conducted by local experts, based on an analysis of the environmental, demographic and economic context.
These documents represent intermediate steps that will lead to the realisation of the Guidelines for the promotion of fire resilient landscapes in the Mediterranean by mid-2023.
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