Research: Current Wildland Fire Patterns and Challenges in Europe: A Synthesis of National Perspectives

Changes in climate, land use, and land management impact the occurrence and severity of wildland fires in many parts of the world. This is particularly evident in Europe, where ongoing changes in land use have strongly modified fire patterns over the last decades. Although satellite data by the European Forest Fire Information System provide large-scale wildland fire statistics across European countries, there is still a crucial need to collect and summarize in-depth local analysis and understanding of the wildland fire condition and associated challenges across Europe. This article aims to provide a general overview of the current wildland fire patterns and challenges as perceived by national representatives, supplemented by national fire statistics (2009–2018) across Europe. For each of the 31 countries included, we present a perspective authored by scientists or practitioners from each respective country, representing a wide range of disciplines and cultural backgrounds. The authors were selected from members of the COST Action “Fire and the Earth System: Science & Society” funded by the European Commission with the aim to share knowledge and improve communication about wildland fire. Where relevant, a brief overview of key studies, particular wildland fire challenges a country is facing, and an overview of notable recent fire events are also presented. Key perceived challenges included (1) the lack of consistent and detailed records for wildland fire events, within and across countries, (2) an increase in wildland fires that pose a risk to properties and human life due to high population densities and sprawl into forested regions, and (3) the view that, irrespective of changes in management, climate change is likely to increase the frequency and impact of wildland fires in the coming decades. Addressing challenge (1) will not only be valuable in advancing national and pan-European wildland fire management strategies, but also in evaluating perceptions (2) and (3) against more robust quantitative evidence.
Wildland fires have been an integral part of many of the Earth’s ecosystems throughout much of their evolution (Pausas & Keeley, 2019) but are also considered as one of the most dangerous “natural disasters” to human societies (Doerr & Santin, 2016). The occurrence of fire is essential in the continuation of many live cycles and in maintaining the natural diversity of many ecosystems (Pausas & Keeley, 2019). Yet in Europe, millennia of intensive agricultural and silvicultural activity, the use of fire as a land management tool, additional ignitions by other human activities as well as very effective fire suppression, has left its regions with a complex pattern of land-covers and fire occurrence that shows little if any resemblance of a natural fire regime (Santín & Doerr, 2016).

In some regions of Europe, the probability and severity of wildland fire is increasing (European Environment Agency, 2017). This is due to several factors, including a decrease in farming activities, population aging, and the decrease in the exploitation of timber and wood resources (Moreira et al., 2011). In addition climate projections suggest (1) substantial warming and increases in the number of heatwaves and (2) droughts and dry spells across most of southern Europe, increasing both the length and the severity of the fire season (Wu et al., 2015).

Due to their prevalence in southern European countries, the behavior and consequences of wildland fires have been particularly studied in these regions for many decades; in some cases with the direct participation of the stakeholders (Champ et al., 2012). More recently researchers in most of the European countries are joining the effort to understand and support manager on the control of wildland fires. This may have in part been driven by an increase of the spent budget (European Commission, n.d.) and an increasing trend in the area burned observed for Eastern Europe (European Commission & Joint Research Centre, 2014), a trend that is expected to continue to increase due to global warming and land abandonment in agriculture area and in plantations for timber production purposes. In Northern Europe, extensive fires have occurred in recent years (European Environment Agency, 2019; Krikken et al., 2019) accelerating research efforts in its regions.

To evaluate and share information about wildland fires across Europe, many of its countries have collected information on wildland fires since the 1970s. However, the lack of harmonized information has hindered its analysis, evaluation, and a common approach to wildland fire management (San-Miguel-Ayanz et al., 2012). Accurate and reliable comparisons between countries are not possible due to the differences in the information from the European countries concerning: (1) quality of fire-cause investigation; (2) the heterogeneity of national classifications, concerning causes of fire categories, the classification criteria, and the level of detail; (3) length of time of national databases; and (4) a restrictive European wildland fire classification scheme (Tedim et al., 2015).

Apart from reports by the Global Fire Monitoring Center (Fire Ecology Research Group, n.d.), the most comprehensive European effort that has been conducted to date is the European Forest Information System (EFFIS, n.d.), a joint collaboration between the European Commission and the European countries. This is a large repository of information on individual wildland fires in Europe, where 43 contributing countries (26 European Union [EU] member states, 12 European non-EU, and 5 countries from Middle East and North Africa) provide every year a common set of data on wildland fires such as time of the fire, locations of fire, size of the fire, and cause of the fire. However, each country still has its own national rules to report individual fire events, which differ between countries, making direct comparisons, and analyses of fire events difficult.

To facilitate the exchange of information on wildland fire across Europe the COST action FIRElinks (CA18135; was established in 2018. It is an open, EU-spanning network for researchers, practitioners, policymakers, and stakeholders involved in wildland fire research and land management, facilitating the discussion of diverse experiences and the emergence of new approaches to fire research. The participation of most European countries in this network provided the unique opportunity to collate national data and personal perspectives of the wildland fire situation and associated future challenges from representatives of 31 countries across Europe.

The aim of this article is therefore to provide a general overview of the diverse wildland fire patterns and challenges across Europe. For each of the 31 countries, we present a perspective authored by a scientists or practitioner from each respective country, representing a wide range of disciplines and cultural backgrounds. This is accompanied for each country by a summary of national fire statistics for the period 2009–2018. Where relevant, key studies and notable fire events are also highlighted. This is followed by a synthesis of the diverse characteristics and perceived challenges, and suggestions for future research directions associated with wildland fire among the European countries covered here.

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