Wildfires

Burnt area in European countries. Source: EEA, Forest fires in Europe and the chart here

Health issues

Health effects from wildfire include both physical and mental effects. Direct exposure to flames or radiant heat can cause burns, injuries, and heat-related illnesses (e.g., dehydration, heat stroke), possibly resulting in death (Finlay et al., 2012). Severe burns require care in special units and carry a risk of multi-organ complications.

Wildfire smoke contains high levels of particulate matter (PM), carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides. PM in wildfire smoke tends to have small particle size (compared with the PM in urban air) and it has high content of oxidative and proinflammatory components, which may lead to strong toxic effects (Dong et al., 2017). Exposure to heavy smoke in areas surrounding a wildfire can cause eye and skin irritation or lead to the onset or exacerbation of acute and chronic respiratory diseases (Finlay et al., 2012; Kizer, 2021; Xu et al., 2020). An increase of premature deaths, respiratory diseases and the number of pneumonia cases was reported after wildfires (EEA, 2020). Exposure to wildfire smoke is also linked to cardiovascular diseases and mortality, resulting from exposure to increased particle concentrations or from psychological stress (Analitis et al., 2012; Liu et al., 2015).

With regards to mental health, people affected by traumatic experiences, such as loss of loved ones, damage to property, or destruction of essential infrastructure in their area, are at an increased risk of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and insomnia. These effects can occur immediately or in a longer term (Xu et al., 2020).

Populations that are particularly vulnerable to adverse effects of wildfire smoke include elderly, children, people with pre-existing cardiovascular and/or respiratory conditions and pregnant women. Outdoor workers and rescue workers are also at high risk owing to their increased occupational exposure (Xu et al., 2020). As PM in wildfire smoke can reach distances up to thousands of kilometers from the fire, the population of large areas are at increased risk due to smoke exposure.

Observed effects

Between 1945 and 2016, 865 people in four Mediterranean regions (Greece, Portugal, Spain and the Italian island of Sardinia) lost their lives as a result of wildfires. Most fatalities were civilians, with 366 people killed, followed by firefighters (266) and aircraft crew (96) (Molina-Terrén et al., 2019).

The PM2.5 air pollution caused by vegetation fires across Europe in 2005 caused over 1400 premature deaths; over 1000 premature deaths were caused in year 2008 (Kollanus et al. 2017). Following a series of wildfires in 2002 near Vilnius, Lithuania, cases of respiratory diseases increased 20-fold (Pereira, 2015). In an analysis of the 2018 wildfires in Sweden exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) was linked with short-term respiratory health effects (Tornevi et al., 2021). Strong positive correlations between wildfire occurrence and the number of pneumonia cases were found in some municipalities in Portugal (Santos et al., 2015).

There is large interannual variability in the number of forest fires and area burnt by them, due to strong variations in meteorological risk factors. In 2018, characterized by record droughts and high temperatures, more European countries suffered from large fires than ever before, in the Mediterranean region but also in north and central Europe (Lancet Countdown and EEA, 2021). In the summer of 2021, thousands of people were evacuated because of fires in Greece and southern Italy (European Civil Protection and Humanitarian aid Operations website, consulted November 2021).

Projected effects

Weather conditions affect the fuel load, as droughts affect vegetation; ignition risk (through high temperatures or thunderstorms); and spread of wildfires (strong winds) (San-Miguel-Ayanz et al., 2020).

Rising temperatures and altered rainfall patterns are projected to increase frequency and intensity of wildfire events, and extend the wildfire risk season (Liu et al., 2010; Pechony and Shindell, 2010) – mainly in the Mediterranean countries, but also temperate regions will face increasing risk (Depicker et al., 2018).

Exposure of the European population is expected to increase due to an expansion of fire-prone areas as well as urban sprawl into those areas (EEA, 2020).

Policy responses

Land use planning, reducing urban sprawl into forest and brush areas, is an important measure limiting impacts of forest fires on populated areas, as is regulation of uses of undeveloped land around settlements to avoid activities that could cause fires. Promotion of types of land cover with low levels of fire risk (e.g. mature native forests) is an example of a low-cost measure. Extensive agricultural practices, such as using animal grazing in break areas, agroforestry i.e. the practice of integrating woody vegetation and agricultural crops and/or livestock, are other management tools to reduce the likelihood of wildfires emergence and spread (EEA, 2020).

Since most wildfires in Europe start as a result of human activity (arson or negligence), awareness raising is a key measure to reduce the risk of wildfires (EEA, 2020).

At the European level, the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS) of the EU Copernicus Emergency Management Service (CEMS) monitors forest fire activity in near-real time and offers monthly and seasonal forecasts of temperature and rainfall anomalies that increase the risk of wildfires. At the national level, examples of early warnings exist: in Portugal, a national alert and warning system was developed, whereby warnings are sent through text messages to the mobile phones active in areas at risk of wildfires or other extreme events (EEA, 2020).

Since 2019 the EU Civil Protection Mechanism is upgraded with rescEU, a programme which offers collaborative support to countries in case of disasters by protecting citizens and management of risks. The European Commission co-finances the stand-by availability of a rescEU firefighting fleet to address potential national shortcomings in responding to forest fires. Between 2007 and 2020, 20% of all requests for assistance through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism were in response to forest fires (EC, 2021).

References

Links to further information