European wildfires: cause and effect and the new normal

A wildfire in Món Sant Benet, Catalonia, Spain in 2022. Photo credit: Miquel Rafa
After finishing school at the beginning of the summer of 2022, my daughter travelled across Europe on an Interrail ticket with a friend. Coming from Bordeaux and heading to Paris, she had to pause her trip for a day in the middle of nowhere as a wildfire blocked the railway. What was a welcome adventure for her was a national disaster for France.
Portugal’s paper industry is responsible for roughly 90,000 jobs, including indirect and induced jobs. Paper is crucial to Portugal’s economy and growth, having been worth approximately three billion euros in the last decade. Its worldwide success and high-quality pulp are based on eucalyptus trees that cover a quarter of Portugal’s forest areas amounting to 900,000 hectares. On 17 June 2017, 66 people died in wildfires, trapped in their cars while fleeing the fire. Three days of national mourning were declared beginning on 18 June 2022.
The non-native eucalyptus tree, originally from Australia, isn’t part of the traditional Portuguese forests with their high diversity consisting of native oaks, laurels, chestnuts and many more species. It’s an invasive species, usually grown in monoculture on poorly managed private land. The romantic-looking trees produce higher-than-average dead material that acts as a deadly combustive agent, as Australian flora and fauna experienced so terribly in the season of 2019-2020.
Two thousand five hundred kilometres to the northeast of Portugal, German forests cover 30% of the country, stretching over 11 million hectares and comprising 48% of spruce and pine trees. Although well managed (it’s a big business. 2019, the forest sector added the value of 35 billion euros to the country’s economy), the German forest industry lost almost 5% of its trees to the bark beetle from 2018-2021, which has it easy with spruce and pines weakened from climate-warming-induced draughts. 450,000 hectares must be reforested. And if that were not enough, wildfires are a new threat to this multi-billion dollar sector, leaving firefighters unprepared with a widely unknown enemy.
Karl-Heinz Banse, President of the German Fire Brigades Association, said in a national press conference on 26 August 2022: “The fire brigade had already fought many (forest) fires in the years 2018 to 2020, and in 2022 there was another increase, especially in the parallelism of the fire events. Regionally, the fire brigade has reached its breaking point, and supra-regional support had already to be provided several times.”
Being long in the making and a looming threat known to foresters over three decades now, acknowledging that the plantation-like pine and spruce monoculture doesn’t have a bright future in many German areas anymore, Andreas Bitter, president of the German Forest Owners Association, concedes at the same event: “Our forest has a chance of survival above all as a mixed forest.” And that’s the consensus of European conservationists across the board.
Nurturing high biodiversity is critical to the ever-increasing problem of wildfires in times of climate warming. But what does that mean practically?
  • First of all, it seems logical to stop the ignition of wildfires in the first place. But it’s unclear how the fires started in half of the events. Naturally, that would be primarily lightenings.
  • But more often than not, it’s human negligence and, sadly, criminal action to create arable land or building plots. The latter can only be addressed by law and preemptive policing. Some improvements are already visible in affected areas.
  • Raising public awareness is also crucial, as tourists’ behaviour is repeatedly responsible for wildfires in wildfire-prone areas. This also counts for the military, as this example shows.
  • More importantly, spreading wildfires must be stoppable as quickly as possible. In wildfire-stricken areas, wildfire watches are a common practice, often conducted by local volunteers, to put out fires when it can be done relatively effortlessly.
  • Good land management is pivotal in stopping fast-spreading fire because dead material on the ground, high grass and other organic material act as timber.
And here, it gets complicated for various reasons. For one, as the Portuguese and German examples show, strong economic interests exist in maintaining monoculture plantations across Europe. Secondly, wildfires are more prone to happen in nature preserves than in areas that are managed by financial needs, defying somewhat the notion that nature is the perfect manager when left alone (that’s because dead material accumulates over the years in “unkempt” nature preserves and makes wildfires more likely to happen). And lastly, wildfires are not destructive per se.
After a wildfire, forests have to reinvent themselves. In that early stage, many species that are not part of regular forest habitats have the chance to thrive. That’s called an early seral forest habitat. They are part of fire ecology and can be places of high biodiversity. But that works only in areas where wildfires are a natural part of their ecology because you need suitable species to cope with wildfires (pines and firs aren’t that).
In its 2022 Report on Interconnected Disaster Risks, the United Nations University states: “Extreme fires can be reduced by using natural processes as a management tool, either by strategically using fire through prescribed burning or a “let it burn” strategy, as well as using goats and other livestock to clear out built-up vegetation. Such practices not only help build ecosystem resilience and reduce the likelihood of mega-fires but also provide co-benefits for livelihoods and biodiversity.”
That’s precisely what conservationists do when managing wildfire-prone areas. But on the desperately needed larger scale of site management, resources that are not available yet in the required quantity are higher budgets and a larger workforce.
Lastly, we must acknowledge that wildfires are not a regularity that inevitably haunts Mediterranean societies and nature but, to a large extent, a manufactured problem that already affects Europe as a whole and must be resolved through policies on a European level as quickly as possible. The damage caused by wildfires is increasing by the day through climate warming, and the burning of organic matter feeds global heating even more.
The wildfire that stopped my daughter’s trip for a day was part of an unprecedented forest fire blaze France had to endure in the Gironde area in July 2022 and made 10,000 people evacuees. With over 62,000 hectares burned, 2022 holds the sad French record for wildfires. Dry maritime pine forests in monoculture were partly responsible for these mega-fires. Will the French forest sector rethink its business model? At least De Havilland is ramping up the production of its iconic and revamped DHC-515 Firefighter water bomber. Often fighting the effect is the beginning of battling the cause.
The LIFE ENPLC project is hosting two webinars and a training course in partnership with Pau Costa Foundation and The Nature Conservancy on the topic of ‘The use of fire as a land management tool: fires, pyroecology and prescribed burning’.
Close to Món Sant Benet and Montserrat a farmer is attending to his field while surrunded by wildfire. Photo credit Miquel Rafa


The news items collected on this blog have been written by project partners of the LIFE ENPLC project.