While wildfires across the American West threaten communities, a summer of excessive heat and drought has also torched parts of Europe. Over June and July, wildfire in the forests of Sweden, to moorlands of the United Kingdom, and even the Netherlands, surpassed records and showed that wildfire is no longer just a “Southern European issue”. The countries of Northern Europe are not accustomed to wildfire and the factors causing this expansion are not going away. Recent articles by the BBC and reflections from our wildfire partner in the UK provide great perspective on this emerging challenge.
July was a massive month for wildfire in Europe and followed a heightened trend for 2018 over the previous 10-year average. This is highlighted in an article by the BBC that explored, “why wildfires are breaking out in the ‘wrong’ countries”. The cause is a prolonged heat-wave drying out abundant fuel loads and it is continuing into August. Ignitions are primarily human-caused in Europe.
The article explains that by July 24, over 34,000 acres burned in the UK, which is four times the previous 10-year average. Approximately 46,000 acres in Sweden was 41 times the previous 10-year average. Aside from the recent tragic fire losses in Greece, Mediterranean Europe has seen less fires through a cool and wet spring and early summer.
In the UK, the current heat wave is the worst since 1976. Shaun Walton, Group Manager for the Pennine Area with the Lancashire Fire & Rescue Service, shared his prospective with me on the conditions and their wildfire response.
“Historically the UK has experienced periodic severe wildfire seasons, however more recently the number and severity of wildfires have increased. Many influencing factors have contributed to this including hotter and dryer seasonal weather. Traditional wildfire seasons have changed, with the UK experiencing wildfires starting earlier and finishing later in the year. UK seasonal weather has not been consistent over the years in comparison to previous seasons, this has allowed fuel/vegetation to have the right conditions to grow and remain in-situ for long periods of time, allowing the fuel to build with dead vegetation providing more surface fuels to burn across the moors.”
Explaining more about the fuel-loading, Shaun shared that, “the UK, like other countries, face challenges [fighting] the various types of vegetation of wildfires in forests, upland and lowland heaths and moors, that can involve surface fuel fires and ground fuels involving peat that are carbon rich and burn requiring little oxygen underground for several weeks.”
Wildfire operations and public outreach are changing with the growing threat as well. In Shaun’s role with the UK’s National Fire Chiefs Council and its Wildfire Group, he explained to me that, “the NFCC supports the UK Fire & Rescue Services to manage this risk by providing safety advice to the public to help prevent wildfire occurring and advising the public on what action to take when they do occur. The NFCC Wildfire Tactical Advisers also provide on request specialist advice to Incident commanders in relation to managing wildfires. The NFCC also support the development of UK National Operational Guidance to provide operational advice to Incident Commanders and improve Firefighter Safety.
Shaun noted that, “various UK fire rescue services are working together to develop specialist teams to fight wildfires by lighting deliberate ‘good fires’ to suppress wildfires and reduce fuels in the wildfires burn path, thereby protecting homes, infrastructure and reducing the impact to the environment.”
As the threat of wildfire continues this summer, Shaun stressed to me, “how important it is that organizations with a vested interest in wildfire, such as NFCC and NFPA, share best practice and learning to support prevention and operational response for what many consider to be the new norm.” NFPA looks forward to this work as well and wishes all those fighting wildfires in Europe safety and success.
BBC News, Sweden battles wildfires from Arctic Circle to Baltic Sea, 18 July 2018, pulled 2 Aug 2018
BBC News, Drone footage captures Dorset heath fire damage, 27 July 18, pulled 2 Aug 18