Page last updated at 16:10 GMT, Tuesday, 25 August 2009 17:10 UK

Forest fires - a continuing Greek tragedy?

ANALYSIS
By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website

Acropolis with fire behind
These fires have crept to the heart of the Greek capital, the Acropolis

Around Athens, the fires appear to be under control - this time.

But with average temperatures in southern Europe increasing, and computer models of future climate suggest that what we have seen so far is just the tip of a (melting) iceberg, were these fires just a foretaste of conflagrations that will come regularly as vegetation turns tinderbox dry?

Are we already witnessing in Greece the fallout from a warming and drying of southern Europe?

We're observing relatively extreme events outside the normal fire season, and outside the normal fire-prone area
Andrea Camia

Data assembled by the European Commission's Joint Research Centre (JRC) gives something of a mixed picture of trends over the last couple of decades for the five countries in its southern Europe dataset - France, Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain.

"If we look at the number of fires, there was a trend to increase from the beginning of the 1990s," says Andrea Camia, JRC research scientist responsible for the European Forest Fire Information System (Effis), which collates data across the continent.

"But then in the last three years we're looking at a slight decrease.

"If we look at the total area burnt, which is in fact the most important thing, what we see is a large variation from year to year, and it's difficult to find any trend."

Graph
The area consumed in the five southern EU states varies from year to year

Whether fires begin is largely a question of what people in the area are doing; accidentally or deliberately, humans are the biggest single cause of ignition.

The weather, though, is a key factor in determining how large a fire will get and how much damage it will do, with rainfall the biggest single influence.

And Europe's weather is changing, in a number of ways.

Summers are becoming longer across the continent; southern countries are seeing less rainfall.

Some of the changes that Effis has noted appear to tally with this changing climatic picture.

"We're observing relatively extreme events outside the normal fire season, even as early as March, and outside the normal fire-prone area," Dr Camia told BBC News.

"In June, Scandinavian countries had very large fires - the largest on record in Norway, and a big one in Sweden.

Map

"This is a signal that the fire-prone area is enlarging. We don't know if this is already the effect [of climate change]."

Two years ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published the most comprehensive projections ever of how conditions are likely to change in future.

The projections it makes for southern Europe depend to a large extent on which computer model is used, and what assumptions are made about economic development.

The most extreme show water availability falling by more than 50% by 2070 right across Portugal, about half of Spain and pockets of Greece, Turkey, France, Croatia and a handful of other countries (compared with a baseline of the 1961-1990 average).

Fire brakes

Whether this translates into more fire damage is, though, a question of human behaviour.

Will people simply take more care, so fewer fires start? And will societies invest more in managing the risk, and managing blazes once they have begun?

This is something that is a way of life for fire-fighters in countries such as Australia and the US; and parts of Europe are now drawing on that expertise and developing their own programmes.

We made an effort to include Greece, but the problem is that our methods are forbidden in Greece
Francisco Castro Rego

"The general idea is that we should have integrated wildfire management, and that integrated wildfire management should include the use of fire to fight fire," says Francisco Castro Rego, co-ordinator of the Fire Paradox project.

The "paradox" in the name is that fire can be used deliberately both to prevent serious conflagrations and to tackle them once they have started.

"First we have prescribed fires, which are a vegetation management tool (reducing the fuel available for a future fire). That is done in wintertime when there are no problems of fire spread," he says.

"The other is to use fires for suppression of an existing fire, and there are basically two options.

"One is to start a second fire that is cleaning vegetation ahead of the main fire; and the other- which is more risky but more effective - is to create a second line of fire that's close to the first, and when it's sufficiently close the in-draft created by the first, the wind, will attract the second fire - they'll meet in a very spectacular moment and it's all over."

Burning issue

This second option might sound alarmingly dangerous but the Fire Paradox team has seen it work successfully in South America.

All the techniques have a role in Europe, Dr Rego maintains; and countries such as Portugal - burned, literally, by the inferno summer of 2003, the western European heatwave year - are applying them regularly and successfully.

Fighting fire with fire

But not, as yet, Greece.

"We made an effort to include Greece, and we have Greek partners, but the problem is that our methods are forbidden in Greece," he says.

"We have talked with the government, and last year we had our annual meeting there - we invited Greek officials and professionals to hear about what's going on, but apparently without much success."

If climate projections turn out to be true, the threat of wildfires is likely to increase across much of the European continent, both in areas where they occur now and in places where they will be a relatively new phenomenon.

It will then be a question of how society responds.

Portugal now possesses a corps of about 20 professionals trained in the art of starting and managing prescribed and suppression fires; it is unlikely to be the last country on the continent to see advantages in learning how to fight fire with fire.

Richard.Black-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk



Print Sponsor


RELATED INTERNET LINKS
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


FEATURES, VIEWS, ANALYSIS
Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

BBC navigation

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific