Europe has descended into the Age of Fire

Wildfires are becoming increasingly difficult to control, he says, because the country isn’t actively being fought with vegetation thinning and deliberate burning. “The problem is that as a society we only have reacted to a problem, building firefighting capacity,” says Castellnou. “We didn’t set up ecosystem management.”

Demographic change and urban exodus go hand in hand with climate change. A Mediterranean climate – both in the region around the Mediterranean Sea and in similar places like California – is already prone to wildfires. Rainy winters and springs encourage the growth of plants, which dry out and turn into fuel in the dry summer. Climate change has made these conditions drier—and hotter—for longer. “It’s a performance enhancer,” says Pyne. “We see climate change exacerbating these conditions.”

“What’s really interesting,” Pyne adds, “is to see the fire spreading to central Europe.” This is a more temperate region and historically hasn’t had the regimented wet-dry cycle of the Mediterranean. But now that it’s suffering increasingly extreme heat waves, wildfires can feed on changing conditions hourly during these heat events, even if the region is not already stuck in a year-long drought like California.

When a hot, dry wind blows through, it can quickly suck the moisture out of grasses, twigs, and shrubs—the really flammable stuff. The big trees may retain their moisture and resist burning, but the rest of the vegetation is now igniting. “You don’t have to dry out the landscape to the point where it is Everyone Tinder,” says Pyne. “All you have to do is have enough to carry the fine fuels and as a result you can have very fast, hot fires.”

As a result, Europe’s ‘fire regime’, as scientists call it, is changing: the hotter it gets, the more the behavior of fire changes. The drier vegetation becomes, the more energy it releases when burned. “So the power of fire increases dramatically with the lack of water, and these fires spread faster,” says Guillermo Rein, who studies fire at Imperial College London. “Some of these fires are actually literally impossible to stop.”

Fire safety scientists say the best way to mitigate the risk is to thin out excess vegetation and use more controlled burns. But Rein cautions that this can be a tough sell to the public. “I’m from Spain – I grew up in a world where absolutely everything is wrong,” he says. Some people object to smoke, which can aggravate respiratory conditions like asthma. But the alternative is increasingly massive, out-of-control fires that belch out even more smoke and suffocate communities for days. And firefighters are very careful to do controlled burns on days when the smoke isn’t aimed at people.

Arguing against fewer flames may seem counterintuitive. But the solution is more controlled, more advantageous ignitions – literally fighting fire with fire. “Unfortunately, the real limiting step isn’t having enough people to do the mandatory incineration,” says Rein. “There aren’t enough people supporting this concept of prescribed burning.”

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