Wildfires in Europe: towards a “new normal”?

This blog was originally posted on 22 July 2022 on the OECD Environment Linkedin page.

by Catherine Desiree GamperÁgnes Szuda and Giulia Bonazzi, OECD Environment Directorate

Credit: Adobe stock images

Amidst record-breaking temperatures, wildfires have been raging across Europe. France’s Gironde region has already seen 19,000 hectares of forest destroyed and 34,000 people evacuated from their homes and holiday resorts.

Simultaneously Spanish authorities have reported over 20 wildfires that are out of control across the country, while Portugal is reporting major damage, including to homes, in the country’s north, centre and Algarve regions. Even northern European countries may not be spared from fires this year, after a dry winter, and even drier summer and soaring temperatures across the continent.

Wildfires are a natural component of many ecosystems and can deliver positive benefits in certain cases. This is different for extreme fires, which cause irreversible damage to certain species, their habitats and ecosystem services – to the point where desertification will follow as opposed to natural reforestation. Extreme fires are hard to suppress and make it challenging to protect people, homes, businesses and infrastructure assets.

“Under a 2 ºC warming scenario, the areas burnt by wildfires would increase by 35% globally as compared to today.”  (6th assessment report, IPCC, 2022)

Active wildfires and areas burnt since 13 July 2022 across Europe based on the COPERNICUS Emergency Management Service’s “Current Situation Viewer” on wildfires. Source: COPERNICUS 

As the OECD’s “Adapting to a changing climate in the management of wildfires” conference highlighted, climate change will make wildfire risks more extreme and more difficult to manage. With global temperatures rising and droughts becoming more pronounced, fire weather seasons are changing, becoming more intense and lasting longer.

Wildfire induced losses and damages can be better contained, but this needs a fundamental shift away from focussing on fire suppression, and instead reducing fire risk at the outset. This requires:

  • Understanding the attributing effect of climate change on future wildfire risk: conducting projections, creating downscaled projections to guide decision-making in adaptation;
  • Increasing stringency in measures to be adopted by home, building or infrastructure owners in hazard areas;
  • Limiting new development in known hazard areas, thereby reducing the wildland-urban interface;
  • Actively managing dead fuel and develop more firebreaks;
  • Adapting forestry management to a changing climate (e.g. crop variety);
  •  Actively managing soil rehabilitation and restoration after fires to build fire resilience.

There are many good practices emerging in countries as we speak. The OECD is working with countries to identify the persistent challenges and emerging solutions: watch this space for results to come soon!

Further reading

Environment Focus blog: 5 things we learned at the OECD Wildfires Conference

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