WildfiresFour Explanations for Why Europe Is Burning

By Stuart Braun

Published 9 August 2021

Barely halfway through summer, the area burned by wildfires raging through the Balkans, Italy, and the southeastern Mediterranean has already eclipsed yearly averages.

Wildfires burning across southern Europe in the last month — whether sparked naturally by lightning, or by arsonists — have been flamed by drought and extreme heat. 

Scientists have no doubt that climate change is the key driver of yet another extreme fire season. They also understand that climate adaptation in fire-prone countries is inadequate to deal with wildfires that are set to worsen.

We look at why Mediterranean and Balkan countries are so prone to wildfires and explore the consequences of a warming world.  

1. Why Is the Mediterranean Region Burning Now?
Summer wildfires are a natural and often necessary part of the life of Mediterranean forests. In the decade before 2016, around 48,000 forest fires burned 457,000 hectares annually across the five southern European nations where wildfires are most prevalent: Spain, France, Portugal, Italy and Greece. According to the scientists, fire can also breed renewal and foster biodiversity in these regions.

Indeed, communities have learned to cope better with the average annual fires in hot and arid regions across southern Europe, with more sophisticated fire prevention strategies leading to an overall decline in the number and size of fires since 1980.

But too often in recent years, fire events have escalated way beyond their normal size and intensity.

Devastating 2017 and 2018 wildfires claimed hundreds of lives across an area stretching from Turkey to Spain, while countries in central and northern Europe, including Sweden, were also scorched. 

Such unprecedented fire events are inevitably linked to extreme droughts and heat waves. 

2. What Is Starting the Fires?
The month of July was the second-hottest ever recorded in Europe (and the third hottest globally). The south of the continent has been the focus of this extreme heat, with temperatures in Greece this week expected to peak at 47 degrees Celsius (117 degrees Fahrenheit).

Greece and neighboring Turkey are in the midst of a heat wave that could be the worst in 30 years — invoking memories of the nightmarish 1987 fire season that claimed more than 1,500 victims in Greece alone.

In Turkey, almost 200 separate wildfires have raged through the country in just over a week, forcing some coastal residents and tourists to flee into the Aegean for safety.