Safe and resilient forests: Commission works for wildfire prevention in Europe and globally

(Credit: Unsplash)

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


Today, following the International Day of Forests, the Commission has published new guidelines to facilitate a better understanding of land-based wildfire prevention and effective responses. They point towards prevention measures that can be taken through governance, planning and forest management, and outline how EU Member States can access EU funding for wildfire resilience and work together at EU level.

Forests are necessary for biodiversity, climate and water regulation, the provision of food, medicines and materials, carbon sequestration and storage, soil stabilisation and the purification of air and water. We have to protect, restore and manage forests sustainably, as they are crucial for our lives and livelihoods.

In recent years, the impact of wildfires on people and nature has increased. The new guidance looks at interconnected factors behind this increase, and provides an overview of existing principles and experiences on managing landscapes, forests and woodlands that can save lives.

The European Green Deal announced a new EU Forest Strategy for 2021 to ensure effective afforestation, and forest preservation and restoration in Europe. This will help to reduce the incidence and extent of wildfires. The EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2030 also aims to contribute to the EU and its Member States being adequately equipped to prevent and respond to major wildfires, which seriously damage forest biodiversity. The new EU Strategy on Adaptation to Climate Change puts emphasis on the need to strengthen the resilience of forests and includes several actions to support this objective. Climate change is already damaging Europe’s forests directly and indirectly through fires, droughts and unprecedented bark beetle outbreaks. Such impacts are likely to increase in the future.

Wildfire risks can be successfully addressed through better management and land-use planning. Mitigating wildfire risks requires looking at land management to ensure that the structure, composition and use of forests, woodland and other vegetation landscapes are more resistant and resilient against wildfires. Citizens also need to be informed and educated about wildfires. The Commission provides funding for such education actions and facilitates cooperation and the coordination of joint responses.

In addition, the Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) has developed country profiles under the Global Wildfire Information System (GWIS) to support wildfire management and disaster risk reduction globally and in particular in Latin America and the Caribbean. This work is part of the EU’s comprehensive approach to support conservation and sustainable development of Amazon forests. There are at present more than 50 EU programmes on this regional priority, and the new budget for global Europe will also cover a specific Amazon strategy, coordinated with EU Member States.

Reactions by Members of the College

Executive Vice-President for the European Green Deal Frans Timmermans said: “Trees are our allies in the fight against the climate and biodiversity crisis. A tree helps purify the air, cools cities, and takes up CO2. Humans already put enormous pressure on the world’s forests, and wildfires are an additional threat. With the risk of wildfires exacerbated by rising temperatures and increasing droughts, stronger forest protection, better prevention and faster responses are crucial.”

Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, Virginijus Sinkevičius, said: “Forest ecosystems are home to 80% of the world’s known terrestrial plants and animals, and their destruction puts us all at risk. Wildfires are an increasingly growing threat to forests and humans and in this new context, prevention and cooperation are our most important tools. I am convinced that these guidelines can create a more effective response with great benefits for people, and the nature we depend on.”

Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, Mariya Gabriel, said: “Wildfires can have catastrophic consequences on the environment and on people. The country profiles designed by the Joint Research Centre will contribute to the risk assessment and mitigation of this danger, proving how science can help improve and protect lives and our planet.”

Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarčič said: “The fires in the Amazon region and globally were unprecedented in their destruction over the last years. The Global Wildfire Information System is therefore crucial to provide information on fire danger and burnt areas globally. Monitoring tools such as the Global Wildfire Information System help the Commission to have all information at hand to coordinate the EU response, and protect lives, livelihoods and the environment”.

Commissioner for International Partnerships, Jutta Urpilainen said: “We stand ready to work together with our partners towards more effective wildfire prevention. This work requires sharing of knowledge on sustainable forest management techniques, adapted to local needs, as well as restoration of forests. The World’s forests are indispensable for biodiversity, climate and for us humans; we need to respect and protect ecosystems that give us so much, also in terms of jobs and livelihoods. With the Green Deal, we aim to ensure the preservation of healthy forests for future generations.”

Background

In recent years, wildfires have had an enormous impact on Europe’s natural capital, economy, and its people, from South to North and East to West. The causes behind these recent trends are complex, and they include climate change, land-management changes, social patterns such as rural abandonment and urban expansion, changing cultural traditions and leisure behaviours, as well as sub-optimal fire management policies.

New scenarios of global climate change also show a potential increase in the occurrence of so-called catastrophic fires, i.e. wildfires that are too severe to be put out. In response to these alarming trends, greater attention should be given to land-based fire prevention practices as part of integrated fire management.

The JRC’s country profiles provide information on the geographic distribution of wildfires, burnt areas and emissions, and assess wildfire regimes and impacts at country and sub-country level worldwide. They enable a global assessment of wildfire risk and mitigation of the effects of wildfires on land degradation, deforestation, or biomass burning emissions. The Global Wildfire Information System builds on the European Forest Fire Information System of Copernicus, and is being further developed together with Group on Earth Observations and the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), in close collaboration with the United Nations. GWIS services also contribute to achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

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