Five questions about wildfires

September 8, 2022

They hit the headlines almost daily in the summer: major wildfires that reduce thousands of hectares to ashes. They seem to be occurring ever more frequently and are increasingly popping up in unexpected places such as London and Siberia, but also in the Netherlands. How is this possible? Are wildfires really increasing in number? And are countries sufficiently well prepared for them? Wildfire expert Cathelijne Stoof answers the most frequently asked questions.

1 Is the number of wildfires increasing, and is more attention being paid to them?

"So far this year, more nature has already gone up in flames in the European Union than in the whole of 2021. The European Forest Fire Information System EFFIS shows where fires are currently occurring. A similar system also exists for the rest of the world: GWIS. When you look at this, you notice that there are far more fires elsewhere in the world than in Europe. Parts of Africa are coloured dark red, for example; fires are the norm there. More attention is paid to fires In Europe and the USA because they are often in densely populated areas or popular holiday spots. Images of a campsite with holidaymakers being evacuated hit social media almost instantaneously. This brings the fire right up close and creates a sense of urgency."

2 What causes wildfires?

“Three elements play a role in the occurrence of a wildfire: the weather
and climate (hot, dry summers), ignition (what sparked the first flame) and
fuel (mostly vegetation). In Europe, almost all fires are man-made. Half of
them are unintentional, for example from a train braking and emitting sparks, a
car exhaust or an abandoned campfire or barbecue. The other half are started
deliberately. In higher altitude areas such as mountains, lightning can be a
cause – but more often it is people. Climate change is turning summers hotter
and drier. This causes plants to die or dry out, which creates excellent fuel.
In favourable conditions, an incipient fire can therefore develop rapidly into
a fire of enormous magnitude and intensity. They can sometimes be so fierce
that they create their own weather with violent turbulence, strong winds and
thunderstorms with lightning. These lightning bolts cause new fires in other
places and unpredictable winds on the ground. An intense fire can also create
flying sparks, like those that rained down on Scheveningen on New Year’s Eve a
couple of years ago. Sparks are carried by the wind, starting new fires –
sometimes miles away.”

3 When do wildfires stop?

“Wildfires stop at the ocean or with a sudden change of weather: heavy rain and less wind. Wildfires are different from building fires. They are dynamic and strongly influenced by time and space. To stop wildfires effectively, you need to have a knowledge of the landscape and there needs to be a change in the weather. When a wildfire reaches a certain intensity, it is impossible to extinguish. Firefighters then focus on slowing down the fire or protecting strategic places, such as residential areas and places with people. But as with most things, prevention is better than cure. They can be prevented by, for example, creating firebreaks (strips where plant growth is removed), preventively burning off undergrowth in a forest and preventing fire-prone plants from overgrowing, so the fire has less fuel. It is all about good landscape management.”

4 Are the Netherlands and Europe well prepared?

“Wildfires are a complex subject, in the Netherlands they are the responsibility of at least five ministries. No-one really has overall responsibility. This has to change; after all, wildfire is not just a problem for the fire service. It is a societal issue: in the future we will have to learn to live with fire. Fire is still primarily approached worldwide, including in the Netherlands, from the point of view of firefighting. But fires can be very useful, even for nature. Some plants need fire or even smoke to germinate. A few days after a fire, green blades of grass start to sprout again and heather also often returns of its own accord. So fire is not always bad and can even be beneficial. But the problem is when the fire itself determines when, where and how it burns. That is when you get uncontrollable fires that can be very dangerous. This is an underestimated risk. In addition, fires are becoming ever more extreme, the fire season is getting longer and the fire seasons in southern and northern Europe are increasingly overlapping. This makes it more difficult for European countries to help each other when needed. We therefore need to gear the landscape and society towards living with fire, learning from the mistakes and successes of elsewhere.

5 What needs to happen in order to 'learn to live with fire'?

"An integrated, practical and scientifically based approach is needed if we are to learn to live with fire and prevent disaster. PyroLife is a major European training programme in which we are working towards just such an integrated approach. In this project we are bringing together knowledge from different countries, scientific disciplines and practices. Southern European wildfire expertise is being used to understand the cause, characteristics and effects of fires in northern regions, while northern European insights into living with water are being applied to living with fire in northern and southern Europe. By working with experts in water management, we will use their knowledge to design resilient landscapes and prepare communities to live with wildfire."