Study maps increasing threat of large wildfires in Europe

European wildfire danger
Smoke from wildfires burning in Greece in 2007 was captured in this image by NASA’s Aqua satellite. At least 60 people died in the fires, which also destroyed hundreds of homes. Visit this NASA Earth Observatory page for more information.

Global warming, shifting land-use patterns heighten risk to urban, tourist areas in Mediterranean region

Staff Report

It’s pretty clear that global warming is going to increase the frequency and intensity of wildfires in many parts of the world. One study has shown, for example, that massive fires in Siberia in 2012 were caused in part by a “stuck” weather pattern in the region.

A new study University of Leicester researchers maps high-risk wildfire zones in Europe, including cities and tourist areas like Catalonia, Madrid and Valencia — all tabbed as facing potentially catastrophic wildfires. Albania, Bulgaria, Cyprus, France, Italy and Spain could also see more wildfires in the wildland-urban interface zone, according to the study published in the Journal of Environmental Management.

“In the regions we have identified as high-risk, local authorities need to prioritize fire risk control and develop better forest fire risk management strategies,” said Professor Heiko Balzter, Director of the Centre for Landscape and Climate Research at the University of Leicester.

“This study was exciting, especially when we had our Eureka moment as it became clear that were onto something. We did not know what to expect when we started this work. To map the extent of wildland/urban areas all across Europe was already quite new. But to find that we can use that map to predict fire risk was a real breakthrough,” Balzter said.

The study area included the European Union, as well as Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, Montenegro, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Turkey, Bosnia and Herzegovina Kosovo. As could be expected, forest fires are strongly concentrated in the Mediterranean countries.

Mapping at the continental scale can help land managers design strategies to reduce wildfire risks, said Dr. Beth Cole, also with the University of Leicester’s Centre for Landscape and Climate Research.

“A European wide approach to mapping the interface of wildland and urban areas has really allowed us to see the relationship between land cover and fire risk at a continental scale,” Cole said.

In many parts of Europe, land-use patterns have changed dramatically under the influence of climate change and the globalized economy. Shrublands are encroaching on abandoned agricultural areas, altering the landscapes around many large cities, particularly in the Mediterranean region. Where such wildland areas meet the city boundaries, wildfires are a serious risk.

“The land cover use well reflects the interaction between human activity and the surrounding environment,” said Dr. Sirio Modugno, a researcher with the University of Cassino and Southern Lazio.

“Wise land management can provide a valuable ecosystem service of fire risk reduction that is currently not explicitly included in ecosystem service valuations,” said Dr. Paquale Borrelli, with the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre in Ispra. “The results reemphasise the importance of including this ecosystem service in landscape valuations to account for the significant landscape function of reducing the risk of catastrophic large fires,” Borelli added.

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