Fighting forest fires in Europe – how it works

forest fires

(John Towner, Unsplash)

This article is brought to you in association with the European Commission.


Every year there are devastating forest fires in Europe, destroying thousands of hectares of forests. Although the South European countries are at a higher risk, no European country is immune.

When a forest fire gets too big for a country to extinguish it on its own, the European Union’s Civil Protection Mechanism can be activated, upon request, to ensure a coordinated response.

Joint and coordinated response

When national capacities to respond to forest fires are surpassed, European countries often show solidarity by sending assistance in the form of water bombing planes, helicopters, fire-fighting equipment and personnel. There is a structured way of doing this at European level.

The Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC) is the emergency response hub of the European Commission.

Upon activation of the European Union’s Civil Protection Mechanism by an affected country, the ERCC co-ordinates assistance on the European level and ensures that help provided is efficient and effective.

Thereby, the EU Commission facilitates and co-finances assistance delivered to the affected area.

Tackling forest fires – an increasing threat

Recent years have seen many deadly fires affect European Union Member States. Hundreds of lives have been lost and billions of euros in damages have been recorded.

In 2017, the Mechanism was activated 18 times for forest fire emergencies in Europe. Portugal, Italy, Montenegro, France, and Albania all received assistance via the Mechanism to respond to forest fires. Following a request from the government of Chile, the EU Civil Protection Mechanism was also activated. This allowed the EU to help Chile fight the worst forest fires in its history through support from Portugal, Spain, and France, along with an EU Civil Protection team of nine experts.

In 2018, the Mechanism was activated 5 times for forest fires in Europe – 2 times for Sweden and once for Portugal, Greece and Latvia. Overall, the EU response included 15 planes, 6 helicopters, over 400 firefighters and crew, and 69 vehicles. The EU Copernicus Emergency Management Service satellite mapping service was activated repeatedly in response to forest fires related emergencies. In 2018 alone, 139 satellite maps helped the EU and Member State authorities to identify and assess the most affected locations, assess the geographical extent of the fires and to evaluate the intensity and scope of the damage.

Preparatory and monitoring measures for the 2019 forest fire season

The European Commission is reinforcing its monitoring and coordination capacities to prepare for the forest fire season.

  • The EU’s 24/7 Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC) will be reinforced with a forest fire support team, with experts from the Member States during the summer.
  • National and European monitoring services and tools such as the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS) provide an overview of the data that European countries collect through their national forest fire programmes.
  • Regular meetings with all the Participating States in the EU Civil Protection Mechanism before the forest fire season in order to have an exchange of information on the state of preparedness.
  • The EU’s Copernicus Satellite system will be used to map forest fires emergencies.
  • Several field exercises on forest fires were held in the past months. This included MODEX field exercises for civil protection on forest fires, with experts and rescue teams from various EU countries and table top exercises.
  • In addition, regular meetings with all the Participating States in the EU Civil Protection Mechanism before and during the forest fire season. This helps to have an exchange of information on the state of preparedness and fire risks. Also experts from the Participating States in the EU Civil Protection Mechanism are seconded to the ERCC every summer.

The EU Civil Protection Mechanism

The EU Civil Protection Mechanism strengthens cooperation between Participating States in the field of civil protection, with a view to improving prevention, preparedness and response to disasters. Through the Mechanism, the European Commission plays a key role in coordinating the response to disasters in Europe and beyond.

When the scale of an emergency overwhelms the response capabilities of a country, it can request assistance via the Mechanism. Once activated, the Mechanism coordinates assistance made available by its Participating States.

By pooling together the civil protection capacities and capabilities, it allows for a stronger and more coherent collective response. To date, all EU Member States participate, as well as Iceland, Norway, Serbia, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Turkey. Since its inception in 2001, the EU Civil Protection Mechanism has responded to over 300 requests for assistance inside and outside the EU.

rescEU: EU establishes firefighting reserve for 2019

In March 2019, the EU strengthened its disaster risk management to better protect citizens from disasters. The upgraded EU Civil Protection Mechanism established a new European reserve of capacities (the ‘rescEU reserve’) that initially includes firefighting planes and helicopters. Through rescEU the Commission reinforces the Union’s collective ability to prevent, prepare and respond to disasters that affect our societies.

To ensure that Europe is prepared for forest fire season, the new legislation includes a transition phase during which Participating States can get funding in exchange for putting their firefighting means at the disposal of the EU. The long-term aim is to add further capacities and assets and build up an even stronger rescEU reserve in the future.

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