Europe on path to set wildfire record this summer

Climate change. Get the latest.
Climate change. Get the latest.

Europe is on pace to set a record for the extent of its wildfires this year, according to data from the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS). Since the beginning of the year, 1.6 million acres, an area equal to one-fifth of the landmass of Belgium, or more than eight New York Cities, has burned.

That’s the most at this point in the year since continentwide record keeping began, in 2006, and it’s double the average year to date. Compared to the prior record, set in 2017, more than 56% as much land has already burned this year. The unusually high number of fires is even more striking: More than four times as many fires have broken out this year than at this point in an average year.

Fire burning atop a tree-lined hill with a helicopter hovering near the edge of the billowing smoke.
Fire at the Pont de Vilomara and Manresa, which is already under control and which led the fire brigade of the government of Catalonia to the limit of its extinction capacity and coincided with a strong heat wave in Europe, July 18. (Eric Renom/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The cause is a series of record-setting heat waves that have hit Europe this summer, combined with drought conditions in much of the continent. In July, temperatures exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit in France, Germany and the United Kingdom. More than 2,000 people died from heat-related causes in Portugal and Spain. Temperature records were set across both countries.

After a spring with 19% less rainfall than average in the European Union and U.K., followed by unusually early and intense heat waves, the European Commission’s Joint Research Center announced in July that a majority of the EU and U.K. were either at “warning” or “alert” levels for drought risk.

These conditions, and the resulting wildfires, have been made more likely to occur because of climate change.

“The situation in terms of drought and extremely high temperatures has affected all Europe this year and the overall situation in the region is worrying, while we are still in the middle of the fire season,” the EFFIS coordinator, Jesús San-Miguel, told Agence France-Presse.

Fires this year have destroyed buildings and forced people to evacuate their homes in Austria, Croatia, France, Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain.

A firefighter covers their mouth with a cloth as they walk near smoke and flames burning in vegetation.
A firefighter walks near flames during a wildfire raging in the Monts d’Arrée, near Brasparts, France, on July 19. (Loic Venance/AFP via Getty Images)

Last Friday, the European Union’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) warned “a large proportion of western Europe is in ‘extreme fire danger’ with some areas of ‘very extreme fire danger.’”

Wildfires are not only caused by climate change, but they also contribute to it, as burning wood releases carbon dioxide. Wildfire carbon emissions have broken records in France and Spain, according to CAMS.

Historically, only the countries in southern Europe have had to contend with wildfires, but global warming has caused that to change. Since 2010 there have been more fires in northern Europe.

Firefighters are being spread thin as a result. Last week, firefighters from Austria, Germany, Greece, Italy, Romania and Poland helped more than 1,100 French firefighters contain the biggest fire in France, the Landiras Fire, near the department of Gironde.

“The overall fire season in the EU is really driven mainly by countries in the Mediterranean region, except in years like this one, in which fires also happen in central and northern regions,” San-Miguel told AFP.


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