By Aaron Labaree
The biggest wildfire in 20 years in Spain’s Catalonia region began on June 26, when a pile of chicken manure, baking in record high temperatures, burst into flames.
Fed by strong winds, the flames spread quickly, igniting dry brush and pine forest. In three days the fire burned more than 16,000 acres, and it took more than 500 firefighters to put it out.
Fires in California and the Amazon rainforest have grabbed attention, but large areas of Europe’s forests also were consumed this summer. Blazes nearly the size of the one in Catalonia tore through Spain’s Canary Islands, the south of France and the Greek islands of Evia and Samos.
From January to mid-October, the European Union has had almost triple the average number of wildfires for the same period over the past decade, with more than 800,000 acres burned so far this year, according to the European Forest Fire Information System.
Heat waves like the ones Europe experienced in 2019 are far more likely to happen because of the changing climate. And hot, dry conditions contribute to making massive fires no longer just a southern European problem: Last year Sweden saw its biggest fires in modern history, and this year the United Kingdom had a record number of them.
Now, like in the United States, firefighters and ecologists in Europe are starting to realize that putting out each fire isn’t possible or desirable. To prevent megafires, experts say, the authorities have to let forests burn naturally — and sometimes even set fires on purpose.
“We need to learn to live with fire, the same way we do with tornadoes or snowstorms,” says Marc Castellnou, chief analyst for a special forest unit of Catalonia’s fire services, known by its Catalan initials GRAF.
The wildfire problem is partly a result of decades of prevention. Fire plays a natural role in a healthy forest, burning away brush, dead trees and plant debris, while leaving many mature trees alive. But to protect human habitation, officials have tried to allow almost no fires to burn. The result is forests that are packed with undergrowth providing kindling and enormous unbroken stocks of trees to burn — megafires waiting to happen.
Europe’s forests have reached this dangerous state for another reason not seen in the U.S.: rural abandonment.
“When I was growing up, all of this was harvest — hazelnuts and olives,” says Rut Domènech, a forest expert who lives in Ribera d’Ebre, the county in Catalonia’s Tarragona province where the recent fires took place, pointing at what is now continuous forest. In the 1950s, the price of these and other crops plummeted with international competition and farmers were forced to move to cities.
Over much of Europe, rural abandonment has led to once-cultivated fields being given back to nature. In the 50 years after World War II, Western Europe’s forest area increased almost 30%. The continent’s land is now more than 40% forested.
Mediterranean shepherds and farmers have been using fire to manage the landscape for thousands of years. But most techniques used by firefighters today were developed in the United States, where the record-setting blazes of the past 10 years have shown the limits of suppression alone. In the U.S. as well as Europe, the change in approach toward fire is just beginning.
“In the scientific community, it’s understood we need to get fire back on the landscape,” says Rod Linn, a climate modeler at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. “And most fire practitioners have come to grips with fire having a lot of benefits. But with the public, there’s work to do to get it socialized, to get people aware that just because you see smoke, it’s not necessarily bad.”