In Europe, it is mainly the 5 southern countries that are affected by forest fires: Portugal, Spain, France, Italy and Greece. For all these countries, the annual average number of fires between 1980 and 2006 was around 49,000 and the annual average burnt area was almost 500,000 ha. However the statistics considerably varies from one year to the next, which clearly indicates the influence of seasonal meteorological conditions.

In France, the regions generally affected by forest fires are situated in the South-west and in the Mediterranean regions. In Greece, Spain and Portugal all the regions of the countries can be affected. This is also the case for Italy, but the risk is higher in the southern regions Calabria, Lazio and Sicily.

Other Mediterranean countries like Cyprus and Turkey are also affected by forest fires, but to a lesser extent.

Burnt wooded area in the Southern Member States (period 1980 - 2000).
Source: European Commission, DG Agriculture (2.10.2000) and Member States

Number of fires in the five Southern Member States in 2006 compared with average 
values for the last 27 years. Source: Forest Fires in Europe, Report No7 / 2006 JRC-IES

Burnt areas in the five Southern Member States in 2006 compared with average 
values for the last 27 years. Source: Forest Fires in Europe, Report No7/2006 JRC-IES

Some countries located in the northern part of the continent can also be the place of forest fires. If we have a look at the Finland statistics for 2006 (year of a dry and warm summer in the country), a relatively high number of wildfires occurred in comparison to years with normal summers. There are usually around 2,000 wildfires a year in Finland, but in 2006 there were 6,288 wildfires and the total burnt area including forest area was around 2,200 ha.

The fires did not cause any death, injured people or damage to the buildings. About 60% of the fires are caused by humans but in most cases the fires are not caused deliberately. In Finland only a very small number of these are the result of arson. Weather conditions such as thunder storms caused 12% of the fires. However, the causes of fires could not be found in 19% of the cases. This country has a very efficient ground fire prevention system as well as a response system which can explain the low number of victims or damage.

Fire burning down the side of a hill in Greece - Source: Lotus R

Development of a warning system

The European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS) has been established by the Joint Research Centre (JRC) and the Directorate General for Environment (DG ENV) of the European Commission (EC) to support the services in charge of the protection of forests against fires in the EU and neighbouring countries.

An element of this EFFIS is the European Forest Fire Risk Forecasting System (EFFRFS). The EFFRFS computes the fire risk forecast using meteorological forecast models, ancillary information and satellite imagery. Seven different indices are computed every day for the whole European territory, providing a harmonized assessment of forest fires risk which is often used during the fire campaign when international collaboration for forest fires fighting is needed.

The system operates every year during the peak of the forest fires campaign, that is, from the 1st of May to the 31st of October. Fire danger is mapped in 5 classes (very low, low, medium, high, and very high) with a spatial resolution of about 40 km. The fire danger classes are the same for all countries and maps show a harmonized picture of the spatial distribution of fire danger level throughout EU. EFFRFS information is delivered every day by Internet to the interested services in the Member States (Civil Protection, Forest and Forest Fire Services) and to the Monitoring and Information Center (MIC) of DG ENV-Civil Protection in Brussels. Additionally, the current fire risk forecast is available on the European Forest Fire Information System website.

Satellite image showing the burnt areas in Portugal (in red) in 2006. Source: Forest Fires in Europe, Report No7/2006 JRC-IES 

 

Estimation of burnt area

Another component of the EFFIS, the Rapid Damage Assessment (RDA) module, has been implemented since 2003 to map burnt areas during the fire season, by analyzing MODIS daily images with a spatial resolution of 250 m. The RDA module provides the daily update of the burnt areas’ perimeters in Europe for fires affecting more than 50 ha.

Images from the MODIS instruments onboard TERRA and ACQUA satellites are acquired and processed a few hours after acquisition. This information is then compared with the official data from each Member State at the end of the fire season.

To give an order of magnitude, 30 people lost their lives due to forest fires in Europe during the summer of 2000. The majority of them were fire fighters and volunteers involved in the fire-fighting operations. But very dramatic wildfires can cause many more victims. In 2007, fires in Greece caused 84 deaths.

From an economic point of view, each of the ±500,000 hectare of forest destroyed each year costs between 1,000 and 5,000€ to Europe's economy. For these reasons, the fight against forest fires became a key issue and the study of the fire risk is now also coordinated at the continental level.

Sources
FOREST FIRES IN SOUTHERN EUROPE, Report No 1, July 2001
Forest Fires in Europe, Report No7 / 2006, JRC-IES / Land Management & Natural Hazards Unit
Forest fires - Forest Data and Information Systems - EC JRC