Fighting fires in Europe: in the EU emergency response center

The first half of July was eventful for the Emergency Response Coordination Center (ERCC) in Brussels as the forest fire season was well underway in Europe.

In just eight days, four Member States – France, Italy, Slovenia and Spain – have requested EU assistance to fight devastating fires, bringing the number of activations of the center to five. emergency for forest fires this year.

The agency, which is part of the EU’s Civil Protection Mechanism, has already had a heavy workload due to Russia’s war in Ukraine and the ongoing fight against COVID-19.

But unlike the war in Ukraine or the pandemic, apocalyptic wildfires in Europe are now commonplace every summer as climate change pushes temperatures at dizzying new heights while almost half of the block is now exposed to “warning” drought levels.

“Since 2017, you have a big increase in terms of activating the mechanism for forest fires and not only for Europe but also for the neighboring country, North Africa. We have also seen requests from Georgia , etc,” Antoine Lemasson, head of the EU Emergency Response Coordination Centre, told Euronews.

This year’s season, he continued, “starts high, in the same range as last year, which was tough, and we hope it won’t be as bad as 2017, which was a deadly fire season with many accidents, especially in Portugal.

How the ERCC works

The ERCC was established in 2013 to be the “operational heart” of the EU Civil Protection Mechanism and now has 33 participating countries, including the 27 EU Member States plus Norway, Iceland, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia and Turkey.

It now has a team of more than 25 staff on duty and is guarded night and day at the Centre’s headquarters in the heart of the European district of Brussels. From their control room filled with maps and data from Copernicus, the European Union’s Earth observation programme, they coordinate the bloc’s response to disasters.

The ERCC has been activated more than 600 times since its inception to respond to earthquakes and cyclones in remote parts of the world, but also to floods and other types of accidents.

It has also been triggered for repatriation, such as following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan or for population displacement events, including the massive influx of Ukrainian refugees into the EU and neighboring countries .

In practice, its help can be requested by any country in the world whose own national emergency resources are overwhelmed by a disaster and need additional help. Their request is entered into the ERCC system, allowing all member states of the agency to see what is needed and add what they can contribute individually.

The ERCC itself has no equipment to ship but it does have a reserve capacity, called rescEU, made up of resources pre-committed by member states.

A fourfold increase in fires

As far as forest fires are concerned, the rescEU reserve this year consists of 12 firefighting planes and a helicopter. These have been loaned by Croatia, France, Greece, Italy, Spain and Sweden, but their maintenance costs and fuel needs are covered by the EU during the season.

Forest fires accounted for an average of 17% of all center activations, or 6.5 activations per year.

Last year there were nine claims related to wildfires – the highest number in the past decade. It also saw the highest ever number of simultaneous activations.

Overall, it was the second worst forest fire season in the EU since 2000, with fire damage only surpassed in 2017, when more than a million hectares burned in the EU.

Twenty-two member states were affected by fires which resulted in a total burned area of ​​500,566 hectares in the bloc. Italy was the hardest hit in the EU with 160,000 hectares razed, but actually came second only to Turkey where more than 206,000 hectares were decimated by the fires.

The statistics so far this year suggest we could be in for a tough spot.

Already more than 515,000 hectares have been burned in the EU, according to data from the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS). This is about four times the average for the same period from 2006 to 2021 (130,255 ha).

The number of fires has also almost quadrupled with more than 1,900 fires recorded so far this year, compared to an average of 520 from 2006 to 2021 at this time of year.

“This wildfire season is crucial for the ERCC,” said Lemasson. “We indicate that the official wildfire season starts in June. But in reality you already have fires in February in the southern Mediterranean belt.”

“In Corsica, you have fire in January and February, etc (because) you have vegetation that is very dry, not enough rain in the spring, so the situation when you arrive at the beginning of summer is already very difficult. It’s a pattern and I think we’ll have to live with that every year now, from now on,” he said.

According to EFFIS, the months of March and April were particularly dramatic this year compared to the 2006-2021 average.

EU’s ‘good but insufficient’ response

This week offers some respite. Slovenia has indicated that it no longer needs European aid while firefighters in southwestern France announced on Monday that the huge Landiras fires which forced the evacuation of more than 36,000 people have been mastered.

But we are only halfway through the season and Greece, which saw dramatic scenes last year as people fled flames on the island of Evia, has so far delayed in asking for European aid.

Part of the reason is that for the first time ever, the ERCC has pre-positioned 204 firefighters from across the bloc in Greece. Work on this pilot project began at the end of the last fire season.

“Greece has been really badly affected. You have had a very good response from Member States, but still insufficient. So what we do every year, we organize a ‘lesson learned’ (workshop) specifically on the fire season of This is, of course, after the end of the season and based on the lessons learned, we have developed such a program”, explained Lemasson.

Major wildfires are now sweeping across large parts from the country.

Greece also represents seven of the last 20 activations for the Copernicus Emergency Management Service above forest fires. Requesting specific mapping from Copernicus to track the extent of a forest fire is often a precursor to an ERCC activation.

Athens asked Copernicus to map the islands of Lesbos, Samos and Crete as well as the fires near Athens, Itea and the Peloponnese, to the south, and Portes, to the north.

But Greece, although regularly overwhelmed, has developed strategies to fight forest fires, just like other Mediterranean countries.

According to the European Environment Agency (EEA), the area burned in the so-called EUMED 5 zone — France, Italy, Greece, Portugal and Spain — has decreased slightly since 1980, showing that their control efforts are effective.

A rescEU fleet arrives

Now Europe must prepare to respond to fires in areas that have so far been largely untouched, including in the center and north of the continent.

Sweden has repeatedly requested EU assistance to fight forest fires over the past decades and in 2020 the Commission funded the Swedish government’s purchase of two new firefighting aircraft.

Brussels now plans to fund member states to buy more air assets and station them across the bloc. But it will take a few years.

“Since the deadly forest fire in Portugal in 2017, the Commission has decided with Member States to create these rescEU assets. to support our member states,” said Lemasson.

These would be added to the assets already committed by Member States to the reserve.

“So I think the only problem is that gap. We have to get to 2026 without too much difficulty and it’s very difficult to predict,” he concluded.

Mary I. Bruner