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Indicator Assessment

Forest fires in Europe

Indicator Assessment
Prod-ID: IND-185-en
  Also known as: CLIM 035
Published 30 Jun 2021 Last modified 30 Jun 2021
9 min read

Climate change has increased forest fire risk across Europe. Even so, the burnt area of the Mediterranean region has decreased slightly since 1980, indicating that fire control efforts have been effective. However, in recent years, forest fires have affected regions in central and northern Europe not typically prone to fires, and, in 2018, more countries suffered large fires than ever before, coinciding with record droughts and heatwaves. An expansion of fire-prone areas and longer fire seasons are projected in most European regions, so additional adaptation measures are needed.

Burnt area in European countries

Chart
Data sources:
Table
Data sources:

Forest fires are essential for many ecosystems, for instance for forest renewal, to help control insect and disease damage, and to reduce build-up of fuel and thus future fire intensity. However, frequent and large-scale fires have negative impacts on air and water quality, biodiversity, soil and landscape aesthetics. Forest fires also threaten climate change mitigation, as they release large amounts of greenhouse gases, and they can cause economic damages and loss of human lives in populated areas.

Fire risk depends on many factors including climatic conditions. Climate change is expected to have a strong impact on forest fire risk in Europe, as recognised by the EU strategy on adaptation to climate change (EC, 2021b). To monitor trends in forest fires, the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS), managed by the Joint Research Centre (JRC), reports on the number of fires and the burnt area, with data on the latter being considered more robust and policy relevant.

Long time series, starting in 1980, are available for Mediterranean Europe — southern France, Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain (EUMED5). The burnt EUMED5 area has slightly decreased since 1980, with the exception of Portugal (Turco et al., 2016; EC, 2020). However, there is large interannual variability, determined strongly by meteorological conditions. For example, the burnt area in 2017 was the second largest on record, due in particular to unprecedented fires in Portugal, whereas the burnt area in 2018 was the lowest on record.

For other European countries, data are available from 1992. More countries suffered large forest fires in 2018 than ever recorded before, including in central and northern Europe, regions not typically affected by fires in the past. For instance, Sweden experienced its worst fire seasons ever in 2018 and required international fire-fighting assistance (EC, 2018c).

Many of the recent extreme fire episodes and devastating fire seasons in Europe were driven by severe weather conditions, with record droughts and heatwaves occurring in the spring and summer of 2017 and 2018 for instance. The EU climate adaptation strategy aims to build a climate-resilient Europe by mitigating the negative consequences of climate change, such as the impacts of forest fires, by 2050 (EC, 2021b).


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 for two scenarios (2°C global warming and RCP8.5 high emissions scenario at the end of this century) (see Table 4 in De Rigo et al., 2017). The daily FWI was computed for each scenario based on the corresponding model. The entire time series was estimated and the 90% quartile of each time period computed. The median of the five-model ensemble is shown for each period.

Data source:

The Canadian Fire Weather Index (FWI) is used to assess fire risk based on meteorological conditions (Van Wagner, 1987). From 1980 to 2012, the FWI increased for Europe as a whole, particularly in southern and eastern Europe (Venäläinen et al., 2014). The fact that the burnt area of the Mediterranean decreased over the same period suggests that fire management and suppression efforts in this region had some effect (Turco et al., 2016).

Comparisons of FWIs for the present climate with projections based on two emission scenarios indicate that fire danger will increase in most regions, except in parts of north-eastern and northern Europe. This increase is expected to lead to a northward expansion of moderate fire danger zones in western-central Europe, but the countries with the highest absolute fire danger will remain Portugal, Spain and Turkey (De Rigo et al., 2017).

Modelling studies indicate that burnt area in EUMED5 countries could double under 3°C global warming, but that adopting additional measures, such as prescribed burning, fire breaks and enhanced fire suppression could substantially limit this increase (Khabarov et al., 2016; Turco et al., 2018).

Supporting information

Indicator definition

This indicator monitors:

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

Units

  • Burnt area is measured in hectares (ha).
  • FWI (no units) measures current forest fire danger and projected changes.

 

Policy context and targets

Context description

Forest fires are a significant disturbance agent in many forested landscapes. Frequent and large-scale fires have negative impacts on air and water quality, threaten biodiversity, increase the risks of soil erosion and spoil the aesthetics of a landscape. Forest fires also represent a threat to climate change mitigation, as they release large amounts of greenhouse gases. Furthermore, forest fires can cause large economic damages and the loss of human lives if they affect populated areas. Nevertheless, fires play an essential role in the dynamics of many ecosystems. They are an essential element of forest renewal, they help control insect and disease damage, and they reduce the build-up of fuel and thus the intensity of future fires.
Fire risk depends on many factors such as climatic conditions (e.g. humidity, temperature and wind), vegetation (e.g. fuel load and condition), topography, forest management practices and socio-economic context. The large majority of wildfires in Europe are ignited by humans, either accidently or intentionally. However, climatic factors and the availability of fuel determine the conditions under which fires occur and spread, once ignition has occurred. The extreme fire episodes and devastating fire seasons of recent years in Europe were, in most cases, driven by severe fire weather conditions. Thus, climate change is expected to have a strong impact on forest fire regimes in Europe.

In February 2021, the European Commission adopted a new EU strategy for adaptation to climate change (EC, 2021b). The new strategy sets out how the European Union can adapt to the unavoidable impacts of climate change and become climate resilient by 2050. It has four principle objectives: to make adaptation smarter, swifter and more systemic, and to step up international action on adaptation to climate change. The strategy builds on the 2018 evaluation of the 2013 EU adaptation strategy (EC, 2018b), accompanied by a Commission staff working document (EC, 2018a). An open public consultation was conducted in preparation for the new strategy between May and August 2020.
The EU forest strategy (EC, 2013) is a key part of forest-related policy development. It aims to coordinate and ensure the coherence of forest-related policies and allow synergies with other sectors that influence forest management. EU forests and the forest sector need to be positioned in a way that ensures their contribution to the EU’s objectives and targets. In early 2021, the Commission has conducted a public consultation for a new EU forest strategy, expected to be adopted later in 2021 (EC, 2021a).

Targets

No targets have been specified.

Related policy documents

No related policy documents have been specified

 

Methodology

Methodology for indicator calculation

Historical fire data series are available in Europe and regularly updated by 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 data, information from past forest fires is routinely used to rate fire potential due to weather conditions. The Canadian FWI is used by EFFIS to rate daily fire danger conditions in Europe.


References

De Rigo, D., et al., 2017,Forest fire danger extremes in Europe under climate change: variability and uncertainty, JRC Technical Reports No EUR 28926 EN, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg (https://publications.europa.eu/en/publication-detail/-/publication/0e99c069-ff3b-11e7-b8f5-01aa75ed71a1/language-en) accessed 6 March 2021.

EC, 2013, Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European 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).

EC, 2018a, Commission Staff Working Document — Evaluation of the EU Strategy on adaptation to climate change accompanying the document ‘Report from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council on the implementation of the EU strategy on adaptation to climate change’ (SWD(2018) 461 final).

EC, 2018b, Report from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council on the implementation of the EU Strategy on adaptation to climate change (COM(2018) 738 final).

EC, 2018c, ‘The largest EU civil protection operation helps Sweden fight forest fires’, European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (https://ec.europa.eu/echo/news/largest-eu-civil-protection-operation-helps-sweden-fight-forest-fires_en) accessed 6 March 2021.

EC, 2020,Forest fires in Europe, Middle East and North Africa 2019., Publications Office, Luxembourg.

EC, 2021a, ‘Commission consults on new EU Forest Strategy’, New EU Forest Strategy (https://ec.europa.eu/environment/news/commission-consults-new-eu-forest-strategy-2021-01-29_en) accessed 27 May 2021.

EC, 2021b, Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions ‘Forging a climate-resilient Europe — the new EU strategy on adaptation to climate change’ (COM(2021) 82 final).

Khabarov, N., et al., 2016, ‘Forest fires and adaptation options in Europe’,Regional Environmental Change16(1), pp. 21-30 (DOI: 10.1007/s10113-014-0621-0).

Turco, M., et al., 2016, ‘Decreasing fires in Mediterranean Europe’,PLOS One11(3), e0150663 (DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0150663).

Turco, M., et al., 2018, ‘Exacerbated fires in Mediterranean Europe due to anthropogenic warming projected with non-stationary climate-fire models’,Nature Communications9(1), p. 3821 (DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-06358-z).

Van Wagner, C. E., 1987,Development and structure of the Canadian forest fire weather index system, Forestry Technical Report No 35, Canadian Forestry Service, Ottawa, Canada (http://cfs.nrcan.gc.ca/publications?id=19927).

Venäläinen, A., et al., 2014, ‘Temporal variations and change in forest fire danger in Europe for 1960–2012’,Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences14(6), pp. 1477-1490 (DOI: 10.5194/nhess-14-1477-2014).

Methodology for gap filling

Not applicable.

Methodology references

No methodology references available.

 

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 from other European countries are checked, stored and managed by the JRC within EFFIS. Time series on forest fires for the five European countries most affected by forest fires (EUMED5) go back to 1980; data from other countries have been increasingly available since 1990. EFFIS covers all EEA member countries except Iceland. Currently, the database 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

Other info

DPSIR: Impact
Typology: Descriptive indicator (Type A - What is happening to the environment and to humans?)
Indicator codes
  • CLIM 035
Frequency of updates
Updates are scheduled every 2 years
EEA Contact Info info@eea.europa.eu

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Geographic coverage

Temporal coverage

Dates

Tags

Filed under:
Filed under: forest fires, projections
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