Europe Is Facing a Different Type of Wildfire
Here’s how European fires differ from those in the American West.
With late-season fires on Portuguese Madeira and Spanish Tenerife recently brought under control, European nations can finally begin to relax after a historic and deadly wildfire season. The mainland continent experienced “far more fires and a larger burned area [in 2023] than in an average fire season,” The New York Times reports, including the single largest wildfire in the EU since record-keeping began in 2000, in Greece.
In the United States, we’re used to words like “historic” and “deadly” when it comes to our wildfires. American fire researchers often point to the U.S. Forest Service’s long history of wildfire suppression as a big reason why we have the cycle of megafires that we do today. Fire had long been a natural part of the ecosystem of the American West; if the land is prevented from burning, plants grow up thick in the underbrush, turning forests into explosive tinderboxes that, once ignited, burn out of control. This is part of why U.S. fire managers emphasize the importance of prescribed burns and teaming up with Indigenous fire practitioners, whose centuries of stewardship helped to keep the North American landscape healthy.
But what’s the deal with Europe, where there isn’t the same legacy of outlawing managed burns and wildfires still seem to be getting bigger and worse by the year?
The first thing to understand is the ways in which U.S. and European fires are the same. Both are being fanned by the same global conditions: “Climate change has led to numerous environmental changes that can increase the frequency and magnitude of dangerous fire weather — increased drought, high air temperatures, low relative humidity, dry lightning, and strong winds, resulting in hotter, drier, and longer fire seasons,” a 2022 United Nations report found. A 2021 study supported by NOAA in the U.S. likewise describes climate change as “the main driver of the increase in fire weather in the western United States.”
The second thing to understand is the ways in which the fires on the two continents are different.
In the U.S., the danger of wildfires to human life and property tends to be exacerbated by the way development has expanded further and further into the vast, unmaintained, “empty” wildlands that make up most of the land in the West. By contrast, fire problems that arise in Europe are largely because people have left the landscape.
Humans have been lighting fires on the European continent for a very, very long time. “The latest studies show that human-driven fires [were already affecting] landscape transformation in the Central European Lowlands 8,500 years ago,” researchers at the University of Latvia explain in a 2021 paper about European fire frequency. The main purpose of those human-started fires had been to clear land for agriculture and grazing, but the practice has gone on for so long that it “has left [regions of Europe] with a complex pattern of land-covers and fire occurrence that shows little if any resemblance of a natural fire regime,” a separate study in the Journal of Environmental Managementexplains.
Until fairly recently, this more or less worked out okay: People managed the land they lived on, set low-intensity fires to burn new pastures or fields, and sometimes put out fires if they happened to threaten property or life. The problems began when people started moving away from farms and into the cities during the 20th century. In a study by the Journal of Environmental Management researchers, which looked at Italy, there was a 20% drop in agricultural areas and a 74% increase in flammable forest cover between 1960 and 2000.
The abandonment of the countryside was particularly pronounced in Eastern Europe, where the collective farms of the Soviet Union were left to go fallow after the fall of the Iron Curtain — from “Poland through Slovakia to Ukraine, an estimated 16 percent of farmland has been abandoned since 1988,” Wired reports — but southern Europe has also seen a land-use shift due to aging farming populations and general rural decline. “In the past three decades,” Wired goes on, “Europe has seen a net loss of farmland larger than Switzerland.”
What that means in practice is that land that had once been managed by rural farmers has been left to return to its original and unmonitored state, whether that’s grasslands, shrublands, or, especially, forests. While it’s taken them a few decades to spring up, these new trees are especially prone to burning: The European Data Journalism Network (EDJNet) reports that in Spain, for instance, forests made up 27% of the overall acres burned by wildfires between 2000 and 2005, but jumped to 42% between 2017 and 2022. In the same time frame, forest fires went from making up a quarter of wildfire-affected lands in Finland to 40%. As EDJNet adds, “The current fire map of Europe is, in this sense, an illustration of the rural exodus and abandonment of the countryside.”
In trying to fight these new forest fires, Europe has fallen into the same “fire paradox” that we have in the United States: the better you are at putting out fires, the more chances you give to fire-prone vegetation between the trees to grow out of control, so when the next fire hits, it’s much worse. This is also where climate change comes back into play: By drying out dead grasses and other plants in these newly abandoned landscapes during the hot summers, the warming planet makes the forests especially vulnerable to flare-ups.
Though the U.S. and Europe have, in a sense, largely had opposite land-use problems — in the American West, people are moving too deep into the countryside, while in Europe, people are typically moving out — the solutions might actually be the same. Fire managers on both continents are encouraging local communities and governments to revitalize farmland as a means of combating worsening fire seasons. In the U.S., this might work by surrounding urban areas with a “buffer” of farms, in order to separate human development from a naturally fire-prone landscape. In Europe, it might take the form of agroforestry, or mixed-use forest-and-farmland, to help break up otherwise homogeneous and flammable swaths of forest or fields.
It might be easier said than done: the number of farmers and size of farmland has been on the decline in both the U.S. and Western Europe for decades, and it will take enormous socioeconomic shifts to reverse that trend. But while American and European fires might be different beasts with their own histories, their overlap also poses an opportunity. The U.S. European Command has helped fight fires in Greece; Portugal is one of the international wildfire partners of the U.S. Department of the Interior. And while fire season might be largely over on both sides of the Atlantic this year between now and the first flare-up of spring, there will be so much to learn — from each other.