WildfiresHarnessing Science and Technology for Battling Wildfires

Published 28 October 2021

Catastrophic wildfires in Europe have become a far too common headline and this year has been no exception as the world once again bore witness to parts of the continent burning. While southern Europe is no stranger to the devastation and loss they leave in their wake, countries in central and northern Europe – areas that were previously not prone to wildfires – are now also experiencing them. Harnessing science and technology, researchers are proving that there is more than one way to fight and respond to fire.

Between 2000 and 2017, 611 firefighters and civilians lost their lives, according to the ‘Sparking fire smart polices in the EU’ report. In this 7-year period, 8.5 million hectares burned, costing over EUR 54 billion to the economy and irreparable damage to the environment. Since then, wildfires have continued to wreak havoc across Europe and in countries around the world. What we are now seeing is a new breed of wildfire: large-scale, unpredictable and intense, often fueled by climatic conditions due to, amongst other things, climate change.

As wildfire behavior changes, so too is the European Union (EU) policy landscape changing. The European Green Deal and the EU Forest Strategy for 2021 that comes under it, the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 and the new EU Strategy on Adaptation to Climate Change are forward new priorities for better wildfire protection, prevention and recovery.

Responding to the new priorities, researchers are pushing boundaries to save lives, livelihoods and the environment. For example, a science-based strategy in wildfire management is being developed by the FirEUrisk project that will shift conventional thinking in the field. FirEUrisk is a precursor to four large-scale demonstrator projects funded under the H2020 European Green Deal: DRYADS, FIRE-RES, FIREOOGUE and SILVANUS, which aim to accelerate the adaptation process to extreme wildfire events.

‘The fires in Portugal in 2017 and in Greece in 2018, and in Greece 2021 again, and in Turkey and Algeria, with the loss of many lives, reminded us once more about the need to have a different and more science-oriented approach to the problem,’ explained Domingos Xavier Viegas, project coordinator and a professor at the University of Coimbra, Portugal. ‘This need is further driven by changes in socio-economic conditions, land use, geopolitical situation and, in particular climate. We have no excuse to continue managing the problem of wildfires as if nothing has changed.’

Key to their success will be the close collaboration between researchers, stakeholders and citizens. ‘Our goal is to benefit from all the science and knowledge that exists dispersed across so many people and agencies or accumulated in so many research institutions and put it into the service of our communities to make our forest areas free of major fires, and nicer places to visit and live safely,’ noted Viegas.