As we have already seen during recent years, forest fires represent a rising problem in Europe. We already discussed about the root causes of this in past web article 1 (e.g. global warming, rural abandonment, increasing urban pressure on forests, etc.), but we did not have the chance to share some figures highlighting this issue. Indeed, the 2022 fire season confirmed an increasing trend in terms of wildfire occurrence, intensity and area threatening wildland-urban interface communities. Actually, as it can be observed in Figure 1, figures from 2022 fire season were significantly worse than the average trend for number of fires and burned area.
The degree of damage observed during past summers has been unprecedented in several EU regions, even in those habituated to handle wildfire incidents. In 2018, the residential area of Mati, Greece, suffered a fire that killed 102 people and reduced more than 600 buildings to ashes. In the summer of 2021, numerous fires ravaged southern Turkey, killing 9 people and destroying hundreds of homes. Algeria also suffered several fires, with 65 deaths, and Greece, southern France, southern Italy, Cyprus and Sardinia had severe outbreaks with multiple affected towns. As for this last fire season, in July and August 2022 significant fire events took place across Europe, especially in France, Portugal and Spain, but also in areas historically considered non-fire prone (e.g. UK, Germany, Czech Republic). It is worth mentioning, on one hand, the Pont de Vilomara fire incident (July 17th 2022, central Catalonia, Spain (Figure 2)) where the fire damaged 168 houses (20 severely damaged/destroyed). This has to be considered as an extraordinary degree of impact within Catalan WUI fires historical records, as houses, mostly made of non-combustible materials, tend to survive fire impact. On the other hand, I would not miss the opportunity to mention 2022 UK fires (east London, Norfolk, Lincolnshire and Sheffield) with 60 structures destroyed, which provides evidence (once again) that there are emerging fire-prone areas in northern latitudes not adapted to wildfires.
WUI fires are one of the most complex civil protection challenges of our society. Fire fighters’ capacities have often been exceeded in recent events, as, in a WUI fire incident, it is not only a forest fire that has to be managed but also a fire percolating through inhabited areas, where people and assets must be protected. Public authorities already acknowledge that the solution has not to rely on increasing suppression efforts and resources but on a complete paradigm shift towards prevention and preparedness taking benefit from Integrated Fire Management strategies (see past Journal 1 for a complete description of the overall IFM cycle). Certainly, this is where communities have an important role to play together with other involved actors (e.g. first responders, risk managers, policy makers, etc.). People living in WUI areas have to be aware of the risk they face, and they have to be well-prepared and self-protected in case of fire impact. Unfortunately, there is still a long way to go to generally consider Mediterranean WUI communities as fire resilient, because, as explained by Medi XXI CEO Ferran Dalmau:
Many people living in WUI areas are not aware of fire risk and home ownership implies ownership of the risk to which that home is exposed
The lack of education, awareness and training of (mostly urban) population is a critical issue in the development of fire risk adapted communities. According to recent studies (McCaffrey et al., 2013; Mort et al. 2020), citizens have generally a low knowledge and perception of what it means to live with this risk, which affects the degree of preparedness and self-protection, both necessary during the preventive, emergency and recovery phases in case of a WUI fire.