European Union: Wildfires Ask Burning Questions on Disaster Prevention

European Union: Wildfires Ask Burning Questions on Disaster Prevention

As global warming accelerates climate change, Europe is experiencing more wildfires. Despite a downward trend in fires in Mediterranean Europe, record heat waves in the Summer of 2021 have caused the region to erupt in flames once more. Mediterranean economies are particularly vulnerable to wildfire damage and illustrate how the European Union should focus as much on fire prevention as on combatting blazes. 

Since the 1980s the Mediterranean nations of Europe (EUMED5) have experienced high rates of wildfires, most of which originate non-naturally. They have destroyed swaths of forests and arable land, forced thousands of evacuations, and taken hundreds of lives. In acknowledgment of this problem, the EU introduced a new Forest Strategy as part of the European Green Deal.

The EU has been implementing some of these strategies, like the mobilization effort, to combat fires in the EUMED5 during this past summer. Janez Lenarčič, EU Commissioner for Crisis Management, specifically prioritized addressing crises on a European level. 

Unfortunately, these efforts are supporting what is a largely human-created problem. Thousands have evacuated in Greece due to the wildfires, with smoke reaching The North Pole. Critics and those affected have lambasted the Greek government for prioritizing the rich urban area around Athens while neglecting the more vulnerable rural areas. Firefighting forces that might otherwise have gone to rescue poorer Greeks were instead kept largely in affluent regions like Athens.

While government and EU intervention has limited the loss of life, the flames have erased many of these communities. The fact that many of these fires occur in the poorer and more rural communities of Italy and Greece focuses the impact of the damage to the local economies and ways of life. Thousands of acres of agricultural land, including venerable olive groves, have been burnt, affecting regions built around farming traditions. Wildfires can erase centuries of botanical history and leave historically agricultural residents with no viable alternative for work. With Greek unemployment still high, and agriculture making up a third of Greek exports, the nation cannot afford more idle farmers. 

The most effective aspect of the EU’s Civil Protection Mechanism, a framework to coordinate quick responses to transnational civil threats, is the multinational fire response effort. However, a staggering 20% of requests to the EU Civil Protection Mechanism are related to wildfires. While storms and floods are the most expensive disasters, heatwaves and subsequent wildfires cause the most fatalities. With so much of the budget and effort devoted to firefighting, it is worth investing more funds and attention towards prevention.


While the effectiveness of the response mechanism is commendable, the EU’s risk management appears to be lacking. A report from the EU analyzing 2020 highlighted the danger presented by the fires. The report estimated that human activity caused 95% of wildfires, specifically negligence and arson. They also cited urbanization, abandonment of traditional arboreal practices, and ineffective forest management as risk factors. 

While climate change magnifies these issues through rising temperatures and increasing drought frequency, these are all feasibly remedied problems. Increased policy attention and direct funding are likely to help reduce the risk of wildfires. For example, properly equipped and informed foresters can help clear fuel from high-risk areas.

The European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS) is the wing of the program specifically devoted to handling wildfires. The system aggregates as much information as possible on global fires and manages potential and incipient fires. The specificity of this program indicates attention to the incendiary problem, and will hopefully develop further to help prevent future blazes. 


As global temperatures continue to increase, extreme weather events and wildfires will only become more common. The Mediterranean region is already the hottest in Europe and will face the most dire and frequent fires. Rising temperatures will force the heavily forested nations of Northern and Central Europe to ignite with greater regularity. The EU Emergency Response Mechanism seems to be effective and is highly likely to continue to save lives and avoid destruction. However, without preemptive steps to prevent wildfire outbreaks, their efforts will be disproportionately dedicated to fighting fires. 

Given this context, the loss of heritage and livelihood could increase urbanization and exacerbate existing issues of arboreal neglect, leading to more fires, political ramifications, and internal displacement. Relative to European nations of a similar size, Greece and Italy both have economies disproportionately reliant on agriculture, and a drastic depletion of those sectors could metastasize, reaching into food markets throughout the EU. Without these preemptive steps, Europe faces a notable risk in this respect. 

Categories: Environment, Europe

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