The frightening wildfires afflicting Europe during bouts of extreme heat this summer are a scourge the world will see more of in the future, scientists say.
That raises questions about what can be done to mitigate their impact as society grapples with the larger challenges of trying to limit the warming of the planet. Though there are steps to be taken to prevent harm to humans and habitat, the bottom line is what we’re seeing in Europe will be an enduring challenge.
“What we are witnessing now is a preview of the world we are leaving to our kids,” Víctor Resco de Dios, a professor of forestry at the University of Lleida in Spain, told CBC News via email.
A bleak backdrop
There have been prior warnings that wildfires will become more intense and occur more often in decades to come.
Recent reports from Europe — which has seen nearly 1,900 wildfires so far this year, almost four times the average from 2006 to 2021 — illustrate the threat such fires already pose.
In southwestern France earlier this week, beachgoers in Arcachon lounged near the Dune du Pilat, Europe’s tallest sand dune, as smoke from wildfires billowed into the sky. Thousands were forced to leave nearby campsites on short notice.
Two wildfires in the wider Gironde region of France were reportedly contained by Thursday, though officials said they wouldn’t be fully extinguished for weeks.
In neighbouring Spain, the recent spate of wildfires have claimed lives of a firefighter and a sheep farmer. Fires there have forced thousands to flee, though some have since returned home.
In Britain, London Mayor Sadiq Khan said on Tuesday the city’s firefighters had faced their busiest day since the Second World War, as a result of fires that broke out during the record-breaking heat wave.
High heat, fierce fires
The hot weather is just one aspect of why wildfires are plaguing Europe. High winds and drought also help propel fires through forests and to places where people are.
Friederike Otto, a senior lecturer in climate science at Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College London, told The Associated Press some of these factors are particularly acute in southern Europe where summer wildfires are effectively “the new norm.”
That’s not to say the risk goes away as the seasons change.
“The fire season is lengthening globally,” said the University of Lleida’s Resco de Dios, pointing to recent fires that have struck Portugal in early July, ahead of the brunt of its typical fire season later in August.
Resco de Dios said seasonal fire risk depends a lot on the weather and how dry the landscape is. And that has implications for future wildfire risks as the world sees more frequent episodes of extreme weather.
“The longer the dry spells under climate change, the earlier the fire season will start and the longer duration it will have,” he said.
On continental Europe’s southwestern edge, Portugal has faced gruelling temperatures alongside wildfires that have burned through tens of thousands of hectares of land.
There has also been loss of life: A pilot was killed in a crash, while fighting a wildfire in the country’s north and an elderly couple died while trying to flee a wildfire in a vehicle, according to Reuters.
“What is happening in Portugal is tragic,” said Susan Gardner, the director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)’s ecosystems division.
And Portugal has previously seen the devastation such fires can cause, when dozens of people died in wildfires there in 2017.
In the wake of those deadly fires, Portugal implemented a more comprehensive approach to fire management in a bid to prevent harm and loss of life, Gardner said. This involved more engagement at the local level, in part to help manage the risks of wildfires in rural areas.
The UNEP has called for governments to spend twice as much on prevention, planning and recovery for wildfire events as they do on direct response efforts.
“Then you’re actually reducing the risk, you’re reducing the damage,” said Gardner.
Resco de Dios sees a need to “take immediate action to curb the fire problem” with a focus on the land itself.
“We must make a large-scale transformation of our landscapes so they become adapted to the future climate and fire regimes,” he said, noting this would include efforts to remove excessive vegetation that can fuel wildfires.
Facing the future
Dealing with more intense wildfires may be daunting, but scientists express optimism that we can make changes.
“This is not an act of God,” said Otto, the climate science lecturer. “This is, to a large degree, our doing.” But, she said, humans have quite a lot of power to do something about it.
Otto said things we can do to adapt include putting an end to the burning of fossil fuels and educating people about climate change.
More generally, Gardner is optimistic about growing public awareness of the perils of climate change, particularly among young people — and thus the capacity to push for needed changes.
She says that every year people become more cognizant of “how the decisions we make as individuals contribute to the big picture in terms of the climate future that we want.”