The scary wildfires plaguing Europe during bouts of extreme heat this summer are a blight the world will see more of in the future, scientists say.
It raises questions about what can be done to lessen their impact as society grapples with the bigger challenges of trying to limit global warming. While there are steps to be taken to prevent harm to humans and habitat, the bottom line is that what we see in Europe will be an enduring challenge.
“What we are witnessing now is a glimpse of the world we are leaving to our children,” Víctor Resco de Dios, a forestry professor at the University of Lleida in Spain, told CBC News via email.
A dark background
There have been earlier warnings that wildfires will become more intense and occur more often in the coming decades.
Recent reports from Europe – which has seen almost 1,900 wildfires so far this year, almost four times the average from 2006 to 2021 – illustrate the threat these fires already pose.
In southwestern France earlier this week, bathers in Arcachon stretched out near the Dune du Pilat, Europe’s highest sand dune, as smoke from wildfires rose in the sky. Thousands of people were forced to leave nearby campsites on short notice.
Two wildfires in the wider Gironde region of France were reportedly brought under control on Thursday, although officials said they would not be fully extinguished for weeks.
In neighboring Spain, the recent wave of forest fires claimed the lives of a firefighter and a sheep farmer. The fires forced thousands to flee, although some have since returned home.
In Britain, London Mayor Sadiq Khan said on Tuesday that the city’s fire brigade had faced their busiest day since World War IIfollowing the fires that broke out during the record heat wave.
High heat, violent fires
Hot weather is just one aspect of why wildfires are raging across Europe. High winds and drought are also helping to propel fires into forests and into places where people are.
Friederike Otto, senior lecturer in climate science at Imperial College London’s Grantham Institute for Climate Change, told The Associated Press that some of these factors are particularly acute in southern Europe where the blazes of forest in the summer are effectively “the new normal”.
This does not mean that the risk disappears over the seasons.
“The fire season is getting longer globally,” said the University of Lleida’s Resco de Dios, pointing to recent fires that hit Portugal in early July, ahead of the bulk of its typical fire season longer. late in August.
Resco de Dios said seasonal fire risk depends a lot on the weather and how dry the landscape is. And that has implications for future wildfire risk, as the world experiences more frequent extreme weather events.
“The longer the dry spells due to climate change, the earlier the fire season will start and the longer it will last,” he said.
At the southwestern tip of mainland Europe, Portugal has faced grueling temperatures as well as wildfires that have scorched tens of thousands of hectares of land.
There were also fatalities: a pilot was killed in an accident while fighting a forest fire in the north of the country and an elderly couple died trying to flee a forest fire in a vehicle, according to Reuters.
“What is happening in Portugal is tragic,” said Susan Gardner, director of the ecosystems division of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).
And Portugal has already seen the devastation these fires can cause, when dozens of people died in wildfires in 2017.
Following these deadly fires, Portugal implemented a more comprehensive approach to fire management in an effort to prevent damage and loss of life, Gardner said. This involved more engagement at the local level, in part to help manage wildfire risks in rural areas.
UNEP has called on governments to spend twice as much on wildfire prevention, planning and recovery as on direct response efforts.
“Then you actually reduce the risk, you reduce the damage,” Gardner said.
Resco de Dios believes it is necessary to “take immediate action to stem the problem of the fires” with a focus on the land itself.
“We need to carry out a large-scale transformation of our landscapes so that they adapt to future weather and fire patterns,” he said, noting that this would include efforts to remove excessive vegetation that can fuel forest fires.
Facing the future
Dealing with more intense wildfires can be daunting, but scientists are expressing optimism that change can be made.
“It’s not an act of God,” said Otto, the climate science lecturer. “It is, to a large extent, our doing.” But, she says, humans have a lot of power to do something about it.
Otto said things we can do to adapt include ending the burning of fossil fuels and educating people about climate change.
More generally, Gardner is optimistic about growing public awareness of the dangers of climate change, especially among young people – and therefore the ability to push for needed changes.
She says every year people become more aware of “how the decisions we make as individuals contribute to the bigger picture in terms of the climate future we want”.