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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Europe Has Descended Into the Age of Fire

Europe is on fire: For days, temperatures have skyrocketed above 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 Celsius), shattering records and triggering huge wildfires that have forced tens of thousands from their homes. From Portugal to Spain to Greece, the flames have spread like a contagion. In the countryside surrounding Bordeaux, France, 75 square miles have charred in the past week. Blazes are even breaking out across London, a city not exactly known for fire weather. 

Wildfires are, of course, a perfectly natural phenomenon and have periodically reset ecosystems for new growth throughout history. But in modern times, thanks to humanity’s meddling with the climate and the landscape, these fires have ballooned into unnatural beasts that instead obliterate ecosystems. Fire historian Stephen Pyne has termed this the Pyrocene, an age of flames

Over the past several years, many factors have conspired to create the massive wildfires seen in Australia and California. Climate change has created more intense heat waves and longer dry seasons, with more crisp, ready-to-burn vegetation. And human habitation is expanding from city centers into these increasingly dry wild zones. (In California, for example, folks are getting priced out of coastal regions and moving into cheaper areas in the forested eastern parts of the state.) The one constant among wildfires is that humans will find a way to start them, whether it’s a spark from a cigarette, a lawnmower, or a firework. “In the US, we have a wildland-urban fire problem—we define it as people foolishly moving into fire-prone areas,” says Pyne. But in Europe, he says, it’s the reverse: “Europe has an equally large problem, but it’s because people have moved out of areas.”

In countries like Portugal, Spain, and Greece, economic development has triggered migration into cities and away from pastoral industries, like farming and raising animals. “That economic shift meant that there were not enough people on the landscape to maintain traditional burning or to maintain traditional land use,” says Pyne. For thousands of years, farmers regularly burned their lands to clear out dead brush and make way for new growth, and to lower the risk of massive blazes. But as in California, many modern European communities have turned to a strategy called fire suppression—meaning putting out wildfires quickly before they have a chance to spread, destroy property, and kill people. That means fuel is piling up in the countryside, ready to burn. 

Because there are now fewer people living in the countryside—and also tougher conservation laws—forests have grown. While that is good for wildlife, it also adds fuel to the landscape. With fewer grazing animals to chew through grasses, that highly flammable fuel builds up even more. “So you start seeing these fires coming out, and it’s just relentless,” Pyne continues.

“In my lifetime as a firefighter, the size of the forests in our country has doubled,” says Marc Castellnou, an incident commander for the Catalan Fire Service and a fire analyst based in Spain. “So there has been a change in our society becoming more urban, and we’re losing the landscape management.”

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Wildfires are becoming more difficult to manage, he says, because the land isn’t actively controlled with vegetation-thinning and deliberate burns. “The problem is that we as a society have only reacted to a problem, building up firefighting capacity,” says Castellnou. “We haven’t built up ecosystem management.” 

The demographic change and cityward migration is happening alongside climate change. A Mediterranean climate—both in the region around the Mediterranean Sea and in similar places like California—is already prone to wildfire. Rainy winters and springs encourage the growth of plants, which desiccate in the dry summer and turn into fuel. Climate change has made those conditions drier—and hotter—for longer. “It's a performance enhancer,” says Pyne. “We're seeing climate change magnifying those conditions.”

“What’s really interesting, though,” Pyne adds, “is to see fire starting to move into Central Europe.” This is a more temperate region and historically hasn’t had the regimented wet-dry cycle of the Mediterranean. But now that it’s suffering increasingly extreme heat waves, wildfires can feed on conditions that change hourly during these heat events, even if the region hasn’t already been stuck in a years-long drought, the way California has.If a hot, dry wind whips through, it can rapidly suck the moisture out of grasses, twigs, and shrubs—the really flammable stuff. The big trees may retain their moisture and resist burning, but the rest of the vegetation is now kindling. “You don’t need to parch the landscape to the point where it’s all tinder,” says Pyne. “All you have to do is to have enough to carry the fine fuels, and so you can have very fast, hot fires as a result of that.” 

As a result, Europe’s “fire regime,” as scientists call it, is transforming: The hotter it gets, the more the behavior of fire changes. As the dryness of vegetation increases, so does the amount of energy it releases when it burns. “So the power of the fire increases dramatically with the lack of water, and these fires will propagate faster,” says Guillermo Rein, who studies fire at Imperial College London. “Some of these fires are actually literally impossible to stop.”

Fire scientists say the best way to mitigate the risk is by thinning excess vegetation and doing more controlled burns. But Rein points out that this can be a hard sell to the public. “I’m from Spain—I grew up and I was raised in a world where absolutely every fire is wrong,” he says. Some people object to the smoke, which can worsen respiratory conditions like asthma. But the alternative is increasingly massive, out-of-control fires that belch even more smoke, choking communities for days on end. And firefighters take great care to do controlled burns on days when conditions don’t send the smoke toward people.

Arguing against fewer flames may seem counterintuitive. But the fix is more controlled, beneficial ignitions—literally fighting fire with fire. “Unfortunately, the actual limiting step isn’t not having enough people to do the prescribed burning,” Rein says. “It’s not enough people supporting the concept of prescribed burning.” 

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