Wildfires raging through Europe this summer have burned the second-largest area on record, even though the region is only halfway through its typical fire season, according to data from the European Union’s Joint Research Centre.
A dozen European countries have suffered major blazes this year, forcing thousands to evacuate and destroying homes and businesses. Countries including Italy, Spain and France still face extreme fire risk.
Wildfires have burned 600,731 hectares in EU countries this year so far, the data showed. That ranks as the second-highest total for any year since 2006, when records began. In 2017, 987,844 hectares were burned.
This year’s burned area is more than double the size of Luxembourg. No other year in the dataset had seen such a high amount of burned land in Europe by August.
The Mediterranean region’s typical fire season runs from June to September.
Climate change is exacerbating fires, by increasing the hot and dry conditions that help them spread faster, burn longer and rage more intensely. Hotter weather saps moisture from vegetation, turning it into dry fuel – a problem exacerbated by shrinking workforces in some areas to clear this vegetation.
Victor Resco de Dios, professor of forest engineering at Spain’s Lleida University, said the large fires France and Portugal suffered in early July were “extremely unusual” and demonstrated how climate change is causing the fire season to start earlier and last longer.
“Today’s fires in the Mediterranean can no longer be extinguished… Large fires are getting bigger and bigger,” he said.
The JRC data covers wildfires bigger than 30 hectares, so if smaller fires were included the total burned would be even higher.
Southern European countries such as Portugal and Greece experience fires most summers, but hotter temperatures are pushing severe wildfire risk north, with Germany, Slovenia and the Czech Republic among those hit this season.
Some action can help to limit blazes, such as setting controlled fires that mimic the low-intensity fires in natural ecosystem cycles.
But without steep cuts to the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change, scientists concur that heatwaves, wildfires and other climate impacts will worsen significantly.
Reporting by Kate Abnett; Editing by John Chalmers and Janet Lawrence