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Forest fires

Indicator Assessment
Prod-ID: IND-185-en
  Also known as: CLIM 035
Created 05 Nov 2019 Published 03 Dec 2019 Last modified 31 Jan 2020
15 min read
The burnt area in the Mediterranean region has shown a slightly decreasing trend since 1980, but with high interannual variability; the meteorological fire hazard has increased over the same period as a result of global climate change. These opposite trends suggest that efforts to improve fire management have generally been successful. Large forest fires in recent years have affected various regions in northern and western Europe in which fires were not prevalent in the past. More European countries suffered from large forest fires in 2018 than ever before, and Sweden experienced the worst fire season in reporting history. The unprecedented forest fires in several European countries in 2017 and 2018 coincided with record droughts and heatwaves in these years. More severe fire weather and, as a consequence, substantial expansion of the fire-prone area and longer fire seasons are projected in most regions of Europe, in particular for high emissions scenarios. The increase in fire danger is projected to be particularly large in western-central Europe, but the absolute fire danger remains highest in southern Europe. Adaptation measures, such as improved fire prevention and suppression, can substantially reduce fire risks.

Key messages

  • The burnt area in the Mediterranean region has shown a slightly decreasing trend since 1980, but with high interannual variability; the meteorological fire hazard has increased over the same period as a result of global climate change. These opposite trends suggest that efforts to improve fire management have generally been successful.
  • Large forest fires in recent years have affected various regions in northern and western Europe in which fires were not prevalent in the past. More European countries suffered from large forest fires in 2018 than ever before, and Sweden experienced the worst fire season in reporting history. The unprecedented forest fires in several European countries in 2017 and 2018 coincided with record droughts and heatwaves in these years.
  • More severe fire weather and, as a consequence, substantial expansion of the fire-prone area and longer fire seasons are projected in most regions of Europe, in particular for high emissions scenarios. The increase in fire danger is projected to be particularly large in western-central Europe, but the absolute fire danger remains highest in southern Europe. Adaptation measures, such as improved fire prevention and suppression, can substantially reduce fire risks.

How is climate change affecting forest fire risk in Europe?

Burnt area in European countries

Chart
Data sources: Explore chart interactively
Table
Data sources: Explore chart interactively

Forest fire danger in the present climate and projected changes under two climate change scenarios

Note: Climate change assessment of the Fire Weather Index (FWI) aggregated component, computed daily from 1980 to 2100 for five models (see Table 4 of de Rigo et al., 2017 https://doi.org/10.2760/13180). The daily FWI is computed for each scenario realisation based on a corresponding model. The entire time series has been estimated and the 90 % quantile of each time period has been computed. The median of the five model ensemble is shown for each period.

Data source:
Downloads and more info

Past trends

Historical fire series are available in Europe and are regularly updated within the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS) managed by the Joint Research Centre (JRC). Data availability in EFFIS is not the same for all countries, and time series longer than 25 years are available for only a few countries. EFFIS reports both on the number of fires and on the burnt area. Of these two indicators, burnt area is considered more robust and more policy relevant, because the reported number of fires can be strongly affected by changes in the statistical reporting systems of countries over time.

Figure 1 shows the burnt area for each of the five southern European countries for which long time series are available (southern France, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain; EUMED5; starting in 1980) and for all other countries together (starting in 1992). The burnt area for the EUMED5 countries shows a slightly decreasing trend since 1980, with the exception of Portugal [i]. However, there is a large variability from one year to the next, which is determined strongly by the seasonal meteorological conditions. This variability is illustrated also by the last two years on record. The burnt area in 2017 was the second largest on record, due in particular to unprecedented forest fires in Portugal, whereas the burnt area in 2018 was the lowest on record. At the same time, more European countries suffered from large forest fires in 2018 than ever before, including in central and northern Europe. Both fire seasons coincided with record droughts and heat waves in the spring and summer of these years in the most affected regions. Sweden experienced its worst fire seasons ever in 2018, which required international fire-fighting assistance through the European Civil Protection Mechanism [ii]. A recent attribution analysis suggests that global warming has slightly increased the risk of such extreme forest fires in Sweden, but the uncertainties are still considerable [iii].

Past trends of fire danger have also been analysed by processing series of meteorological fire danger indices, which are routinely used to rate the fire potential owing to climate conditions. The most commonly used index is the Canadian Fire Weather Index (FWI) [iv]. Mean seasonal FWI can successfully explain most of the year-to-year variation in burnt area in European countries [v]. Over the period 1980–2012, the FWI significantly increased for southern and eastern Europe, and for Europe as a whole [vi]. The fact that burnt area in the Mediterranean region has decreased over the same period suggests that improved fire prevention and suppression have successfully counteracted the observed increase in meteorological fire danger [vii]. A recent global attribution analysis found that anthropogenic increases in extreme FWI days have emerged for 22 % of burnable land area globally by 2019, including most of the Mediterranean region [viii].

Projections

Climate change projections suggest substantial warming and increases in the number of heat waves, droughts and dry spells across most of the Mediterranean area and more generally in southern Europe, which would increase the length and severity of the fire season, the area at risk and the probability of large fires, possibly enhancing desertification [ix].

Figure 2 shows weather-driven fire danger for the present climate and for projected climate conditions under two emissions scenarios, as calculated in the JRC PESETA III project. These projections show marked increases in fire danger in most European regions, with the exception of parts of north-eastern and northern Europe. These changes are more pronounced for higher than for lower emission scenarios. The increase in fire danger would be particularly strong in western central Europe, leading to a northward expansion of the zones at moderate fire danger. However, the countries with the highest absolute danger remain Portugal, Spain and Turkey [x]. The projected increase in fire risk in southern Europe are robust across different modelling approaches whereas the projections for northern Europe are more uncertain. For example, one modelling study using process-based vegetation models rather than meteorological fire indices projects large increases in fire risk also for eastern Europe and parts of northern Europe [xi].

A recent study using drought conditions as a predictor of forest fire risk projects increases in burnt area in Mediterranean Europe (EUMED5) that range from ~40 % under 1.5 °C global warming to ~100 % under 3 °C warming [xii]. This study considers that more frequent fires can lead to ecosystem changes that limit fuel availability and, as a result, subsequent fire risk. Modelling studies including adaptation options show that projected increases in forest fire risk could be substantially reduced by additional adaptation measures, such as prescribed burning, fire breaks, enhanced fire suppression and continued prevention activities [xiii].


[i] Marco Turco et al., ‘Decreasing Fires in Mediterranean Europe’,PLOS ONE 11, no. 3 (16 March 2016): e0150663, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150663; Jesus San-Miguel-Ayanz et al., ‘Forest Fires in Europe, Middle East and North Africa 2018’, JRC Technical Report (Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union, 2019), JRC117883, http://doi.org/10.2760/561734.

[ii] EC, ‘The Largest EU Civil Protection Operation Helps Sweden Fight Forest Fires’ (European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations, 6 August 2018), https://ec.europa.eu/echo/news/largest-eu-civil-protection-operation-helps-sweden-fight-forest-fires_en.

[iii] Folmer Krikken et al., ‘Attribution of the Role of Climate Change in the Forest Fires in Sweden2018’, preprint (Atmospheric, Meteorological and Climatological Hazards, 13 August 2019), https://doi.org/10.5194/nhess-2019-206.

[iv] C.E. Van Wagner, ‘Development and Structure of the Canadian Forest Fire Weather Index System’, Forestry Technical Report (Ottawa: Canadian Forestry Service Headquarters, 1987), http://cfs.nrcan.gc.ca/publications?id=19927.

[v] A. Venäläinen et al., ‘Temporal Variations and Change in Forest Fire Danger in Europe for 1960–2012’,Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences 14, no. 6 (11 June 2014): 1477–90, https://doi.org/10.5194/nhess-14-1477-2014; Itziar R Urbieta et al., ‘Fire Activity as a Function of Fire–Weather Seasonal Severity and Antecedent Climate across Spatial Scales in Southern Europe and Pacific Western USA’,Environmental Research Letters 10, no. 11 (1 November 2015): 114013, https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/10/11/114013.

[vi] Venäläinen et al., ‘Temporal Variations and Change in Forest Fire Danger in Europe for 1960–2012’.

[vii] Turco et al., ‘Decreasing Fires in Mediterranean Europe’.

[viii] John T. Abatzoglou, A. Park Williams, and Renaud Barbero, ‘Global Emergence of Anthropogenic Climate Change in Fire Weather Indices’,Geophysical Research Letters 46, no. 1 (16 January 2019): 326–36, https://doi.org/10.1029/2018GL080959.

[ix] EEA, ‘Climate Change, Impacts and Vulnerability in Europe 2016 — An Indicator-Based Report’, EEA Report (European Environment Agency, 2017), https://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/climate-change-impacts-and-vulnerability-2016.

[x] D de Rigo et al., ‘Forest Fire Danger Extremes in Europe under Climate Change: Variability and Uncertainty’, JRC Technical Report (Publications Office of the European Union, 2017), http://dx.doi.org/10.2760/13180.

[xi] Minchao Wu et al., ‘Sensitivity of Burned Area in Europe to Climate Change, Atmospheric CO 2 Levels, and Demography: A Comparison of Two Fire-Vegetation Models’,Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences 120, no. 11 (November 2015): 2256–72, https://doi.org/10.1002/2015JG003036.

[xii] Marco Turco et al., ‘Exacerbated Fires in Mediterranean Europe Due to Anthropogenic Warming Projected with Non-Stationary Climate-Fire Models’,Nature Communications 9, no. 1 (December 2018): 3821, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-018-06358-z.

[xiii] Nikolay Khabarov et al., ‘Forest Fires and Adaptation Options in Europe’,Regional Environmental Change 16, no. 1 (7 September 2014): 21–30, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10113-014-0621-0.

Indicator specification and metadata

Indicator definition

This indicator monitors:

  • the burnt areas in European countries;
  • the current state of and projected changes in forest fire danger.

Units

  • Area (ha).
  • FWI (no units).

Policy context and targets

Context description

In April 2013, the European Commission presented the EU adaptation strategy package. This package consists of the EU strategy on adaptation to climate change (COM/2013/216 final) and a number of supporting documents. The overall aim of the EU adaptation strategy is to contribute to a more climate-resilient Europe. One of the objectives of the EU adaptation strategy is to allow ‘Better informed decision-making’. This will be achieved by bridging knowledge gaps and further developing the European climate adaptation platform (Climate-ADAPT) as the ‘first-stop shop’ for climate adaptation information in Europe. Climate-ADAPT has been developed jointly by the European Commission and the European Environment Agency (EEA) to share knowledge on (1) observed and projected climate change and its impacts on environmental and social systems and on human health, (2) relevant research, (3) EU, transnational, national and subnational adaptation strategies and plans, and (4) adaptation case studies. It was relaunched in early 2019 with a new design and updated content. Further objectives include ‘Promoting adaptation in key vulnerable sectors through climate-proofing EU sector policies’ and ‘Promoting action by Member States’.

In November 2018, the Commission published its evaluation of the 2013 EU adaptation strategy. The evaluation package includes a report from the Commission, a Commission staff working document, the adaptation preparedness scoreboard country fiches and reports from the JRC Peseta III project. This evaluation includes recommendations for the further development and implementation of adaptation policies at all levels.

In November 2013, the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union adopted the EU's Seventh Environment Action Programme (7th EAP) to 2020, ‘Living well, within the limits of our planet’. The 7th EAP is intended to help guide EU action on the environment and climate change up to and beyond 2020. It highlights that ‘Action to mitigate and adapt to climate change will increase the resilience of the Union’s economy and society, while stimulating innovation and protecting the Union’s natural resources.’ Consequently, several priority objectives of the 7th EAP refer to climate change adaptation.

Targets

No targets have been specified.

Related policy documents

  • 7th Environment Action Programme
    DECISION No 1386/2013/EU OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL of 20 November 2013 on a General Union Environment Action Programme to 2020 ‘Living well, within the limits of our planet’. In November 2013, the European Parliament and the European Council adopted the 7 th EU Environment Action Programme to 2020 ‘Living well, within the limits of our planet’. This programme is intended to help guide EU action on the environment and climate change up to and beyond 2020 based on the following vision: ‘In 2050, we live well, within the planet’s ecological limits. Our prosperity and healthy environment stem from an innovative, circular economy where nothing is wasted and where natural resources are managed sustainably, and biodiversity is protected, valued and restored in ways that enhance our society’s resilience. Our low-carbon growth has long been decoupled from resource use, setting the pace for a safe and sustainable global society.’
  • A new EU Forest Strategy
    A new EU Forest Strategy: for forests and the forest-based sector.  Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council, the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions ‘A new EU Forest Strategy: for forests and the forest-based sector’, COM(2013) 659 final. The EU needs a policy framework that coordinates and ensures coherence of forest-related policies and allows synergies with other sectors that influence forest management. The new forest strategy is a key reference in forest-related policy development. EU forests and forest sector need to be positioned in a way that ensures their contribution to the EU’s objectives and targets. This implies to: • Ensure that the multifunctional potential of EU forests is managed in a sustainable and balanced way, enabling our forests’ vital ecosystem services to function correctly. • Satisfy the growing demand for raw material for existing and new products (e.g. green chemicals or textile fibres) and for renewable energy. This demand is an opportunity to diversify markets, but poses a significant challenge for sustainable management and for balancing demands. Demand for new uses in the bioeconomy and in bioenergy should be coordinated with traditional demands, and respect sustainable boundaries. • Respond to the challenges and opportunities that forest-based industries face in resource and energy efficiency, raw materials, logistics, structural adaptation, innovation, education, training and skills, international competition, climate policy beyond 2020 and information and communication, to stimulate growth. • Protect forests and biodiversity from the significant effects of storms and fires, increasingly scarce water resources, and pests. These threats do not respect national borders and are exacerbated by climate change. • Acknowledge that the EU does not only rely on its own production, and that its consumption has implications for forests worldwide. • Develop an adequate information system to follow-up on all of the above.
  • Climate-ADAPT: Adaptation in EU policy sectors
    Overview of EU sector policies in which mainstreaming of adaptation to climate change is ongoing or explored
  • Climate-ADAPT: Country profiles
    Overview of activities of EEA member countries in preparing, developing and implementing adaptation strategies
  • DG CLIMA: Adaptation to climate change
    Adaptation means anticipating the adverse effects of climate change and taking appropriate action to prevent or minimise the damage they can cause, or taking advantage of opportunities that may arise. It has been shown that well planned, early adaptation action saves money and lives in the future. This web portal provides information on all adaptation activities of the European Commission.
  • EU Adaptation Strategy Package
    In April 2013, the European Commission adopted an EU strategy on adaptation to climate change, which has been welcomed by the EU Member States. The strategy aims to make Europe more climate-resilient. By taking a coherent approach and providing for improved coordination, it enhances the preparedness and capacity of all governance levels to respond to the impacts of climate change.
  • Evaluation of the EU Adaptation Strategy Package
    In November 2018, the EC published an evaluation of the EU Adaptation Strategy. The evaluation package comprises a Report on the implementation of the EU Strategy on adaptation to climate change (COM(2018)738), the Evaluation of the EU Strategy on adaptation to climate change (SWD(2018)461), and the Adaptation preparedness scoreboard Country fiches (SWD(2018)460). The evaluation found that the EU Adaptation Strategy has been a reference point to prepare Europe for the climate impacts to come, at all levels. It emphasized that EU policy must seek to create synergies between climate change adaptation, disaster risk reduction efforts and sustainable development to avoid future damage and provide for long-term economic and social welfare in Europe and in partner countries. The evaluation also suggests areas where more work needs to be done to prepare vulnerable regions and sectors.

Methodology

Methodology for indicator calculation

Historical fire data series are available in Europe and regularly updated within EFFIS. EFFIS addresses forest fires in Europe in a comprehensive way, providing EU-level assessments from pre-fire to post-fire phases, thus supporting fire prevention, preparedness, fire fighting and post-fire evaluations.

To complement the information from past forest fires are routinely used to rate the fire potential due to weather conditions. The Canadian FWI is used by EFFIS to rate the daily fire danger conditions in Europe.

Methodology for gap filling

Not applicable.

Methodology references

Uncertainties

Methodology uncertainty

Not applicable.

Data sets uncertainty

Information on forest fires is collected in the JRC's European Fire Database. This database is an important component of EFFIS. Forest fire data are provided each year by individual EU Member States in accordance with several EU regulations, and additional data coming from other European countries are checked, stored and managed by JRC within EFFIS. Time series on forest fires for the five European countries most affected by forest fires go back to 1980; data from other countries have been increasingly available since 1990. Currently, the database covers data from 22 countries in Europe and contains over 2 million individual fire event records. Data quality is generally high. However, a few countries have changed their reporting methodology over time, such as Greece in 1998.

Rationale uncertainty

No uncertainty has been specified

Data sources

Metadata

Topics:

information.png Tags:
,
DPSIR: Impact
Typology: Descriptive indicator (Type A - What is happening to the environment and to humans?)
Indicator codes
  • CLIM 035
Temporal coverage:

Dates

Frequency of updates

Updates are scheduled every 2 years

EEA Contact Info

Annemarie Bastrup-Birk

Tags

Filed under:
Filed under: forest fires, projections
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