View from Brussels: Wildfires show need for collective response

New fire-fighting aircraft, better planning and admitting new countries into an EU crisis-response programme are just some of the ways Brussels wants to prepare better for wildfires, after this summer’s blazes left tracks of scorched land in their wake.

Firefighters are now used to busy summers across Europe, as drier, longer sunshine months increase the likelihood of fires. It has even prompted the EU to create a dedicated crisis management scheme to help coordinate efforts on the ground and funding.

But the programme is not enough to respond to every request for assistance. The EU’s head of crisis management, Slovenia’s Janez Lenarčić, admitted at an emergency meeting this week that some governments had not asked for help because they knew none was available.

“At European level we have reached our capacity limit. Some overwhelming fires in some member states did in fact not lead to a request for assistance. The states in need knew that no capacities would have been available,” he told ministers from across Europe.

It has prompted a response from national governments though, who are largely united in wanting to boost the EU programme’s resources, chiefly because pretty much every country is in some way negatively impacted by wildfires.

The scheme has about €900 million to play with every year, but that budget will have to be increased in order to fund a new raft of measures and purchases that are being planned ahead of the 2023 fire season.

One measure is pre-positioning of firefighting crews, so that they are closer to disaster zones before blazes get out of control. A pilot scheme in Greece this summer reportedly paid off and now will be rolled out in countries that express interest in trying it.

A major expenditure will be the joint purchase of new firefighting aircraft, which will be held in a common pool and dispatched to areas that need them. The current fleet is made up of 12 planes, but will more than double in size by 2030.

Extra resources will also be funnelled towards buying firefighting helicopters, which are cheaper and easier to manoeuvre to areas that need quick assistance. The EU plans to add nine medium-sized aircraft to its fleet.

Prices vary and joint purchasing power may secure the EU a better deal, but given that Canadair firefighting planes cost more than €30 million each, the financial outlay will be quite significant.

Any country is able to request assistance from the EU. For example, the crisis programme recently collected more than €2,000,000 in emergency aid for Pakistan, where devastating floods left a third of the country underwater.

But only full members are able to reap the full coordinated benefits and contribute to disaster response initiatives. The 27 EU countries, Iceland, Norway, Serbia, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Turkey are full members and were this week joined by another nation.

Bosnia and Herzegovina signed up to the scheme and will now be able to participate in the programme’s various missions. 

“Fully fledged participation in the EU Civil Protection Mechanism is a recognition of the significant progress Bosnia and Herzegovina has made over the years in building a resilient civil protection system,” Lenarčić said during a signing ceremony in Sarajevo.

He added that “I am confident that soon other countries in need will reap the benefits of this accession.” The United Kingdom declined to remain a part of the programme and ceased to be a member after Brexit.

More resources are expected in the near future. The Copernicus Earth observation satellite programme is already used extensively to track and predict wildfires, plus expansion missions are planned that could increase capacity even further.

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