Wildfires raging in Europe: What, where and why?

As emergency services battle wildfires across Europe, we take a look at the event and the probable causes.

This photo provided Friday July 15, 2022 by the fire brigade of the Gironde region (SDIS 33) shows a wildfire near Landiras, southwestern France, Thursday, July 14, 2022. Several hundred firefighters struggled Friday to contain two wildfires in the Bordeaux region of southwest France that have forced the evacuation of 10,000 people and ravaged more than 7,000 hectares of land. High temperatures and strong winds have complicated firefighting efforts in the region, one of several around Europe scorched by wildfires this season. (SDIS 33 via AP)
This photo provided on July 15, 2022 by the fire brigade of the Gironde region shows a wildfire near Landiras, southwestern France [File: AP]

Once a rare occurrence, extreme fires are now becoming more frequent and lasting longer worldwide.

The destructive blazes are driven at least in part by climate change, which exacerbates their scale and intensity, even in the northern winter months.

With temperatures spiking above 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), wildfires are raging across several countries in Europe, prompting mass evacuations.

Here is what you should know:

What has been happening?

  • Wildfires are spreading across Europe as the combination of heatwaves and droughts are making it hard to combat the blazes in some regions.
  • On Wednesday, emergency services battled wildfires across swathes of southern Europe amid mass evacuations. Temperatures cooled in France and the United Kingdom but firefighters continue battling wildfires in Greece, Spain and Italy.
  • On Thursday, the European Forest Fire Information System said 19 countries were in “extreme danger” from the wildfires, while Spain, Portugal and France were at “very extreme danger”.
  • In southwestern Slovenia, a severe wildfire was reported on Thursday in Kostanjevica na Krasu, a very dry and windy area.

What countries are affected?

  • Wildfires have been raging in Greece, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Turkey, the United Kingdom and France. 
  • Greece: A wildfire in mountains near Athens, forced hundreds of people to flee; however, authorities said it was later brought under control.
  • The wildfire broke out on Tuesday some 27km (16 miles) north of the capital and spread quickly to nearby urban districts, including Penteli and Anthousa.
  • Despite taming the fire, some 485 firefighters, 120 fire engines and almost 20 aircraft remained to minimise the risk of flare-ups.
  • In the meantime, more fires raged near the city of Megara, some 40km (25 miles) west of Athens and on the island of Salamina, a 15-minute ferry trip from the capital.
  • Officials said that since the start of the fire season on May 1, they have recorded nearly 2,500 wildfires.
  • Spain: Driven by a record-breaking heat wave, a fire that started last month in the province of Zamora scorched at least 25,000 hectares (61,000 acres). More than 6,000 people were evacuated from 32 villages in the area. Two people have died and three others were critically injured.
  • Authorities say the situation is under control, but firefighters were also battling flames in the regions of Castile and Leon, Galicia, Aragon, Madrid and Castile-La Mancha, with some local services running out of fire extinguishing capacity.
  • A blaze in the municipality of Ateca in the province of Zaragoza on Wednesday led to the suspension of all train services with Madrid, Aragon and Catalonia.
  • Separately, according to authorities, more than 500 people died during a 10-day heatwave in Spain.
  • Portugal: A wildfire started on July 17 in the Murca municipality, in northern Portugal and spread towards Vila Pouca de Aguiar and Carrazedo de Montenegro.
  • The blaze has affected roughly 14,800 acres (5,989 hectares), according to the European Union’s Earth Observation Programme Copernicus. An elderly couple was found dead inside a burned car.
  • Several wildfires also broke out on July 7 in the Leiria and Santarem districts, in the Ourem municipality.
  • More than 7,413 hectares (18,318 acres) have burned and authorities have blocked key motorways and side streets as strong winds made it harder for firefighters to fight the flames.
  • The country’s director-general of health said there were 1,063 heat-related deaths between July 7 and July 18.
INTERACTIVE- Where wildfires are raging across Europe
(Al Jazeera)
  • Italy: Firefighters on Wednesday battled for a second day to control a wildfire near the Tuscan town of Lucca.
  • The blaze has already destroyed some 650 hectares (1606 acres) of woods.
  • It also forced some 300 people to evacuate as the flames raged through the night, reaching some villages and causing some liquefied gas tanks to explode, governor Eugenio Giani said on Twitter.
  • A blaze in northeast Italy spread to Slovenia and threatened to leave the city of Trieste without power and water.
  • The country is forecast to endure temperatures of 48C (108F) from Wednesday through Friday.
  • France: Since July 12, firefighters in the southwest Gironde department have been battling to tame a fire which has so far ravaged nearly 20,600 hectares (50,903 acres) of land. Nearly 37,000 people have been evacuated from their homes.
  • Speaking at La Teste-de-Buch, west of Bordeaux, President Emmanuel Macron said the blaze was “one of the biggest in French history” and congratulated firefighters and locals for their greatest achievement – not one casualty has thus far been reported.
  • The Bordeaux Public Prosecutor said in a statement a man was in police custody in connection with a probe into a bigger fire in Landiras, also in the Gironde department, where 13,600 hectares (33,606 acres) have been scorched.
  • Wildfires in France so far this year have scorched 25 percent more land compared with the same period last year.
A burning tree is seen in La Teste-de-Buch forest destroyed by an enormous fire near Dune du Pilat as wildfires continue to spread in the Gironde region of southwestern France [File:Reuters]
  • Turkey: A blaze broke out on July 13 near the town of Marmaris in the Aegean province of Mugla and spread through the woodlands in the sparsely populated area. About 17 houses and nearly 728 hectares (1,800 acres) of land were ravaged.
  • Some 450 houses and 3,530 people were evacuated.
  • United Kingdom: A record-breaking heatwave has spurred calls for the government to speed up efforts to adapt to a changing climate, especially after fires created the busiest day for London firefighters since bombs rained down on the city during World War II.
  • In London, crews fought blazes that destroyed more than 40 properties. On Tuesday, more than a dozen fires broke out across the capital.
  • The UK recorded its highest-ever temperature shortly before 12:00 GMT on Tuesday, when it reached 40.2C (104.4F) at London’s Heathrow Airport.

Why is this happening?

  • Climate change increases hot and dry conditions that help fires spread faster, burn longer and rage more intensely.
  • In the Mediterranean, that has contributed to the fire season starting earlier and burning more land.
  • Last year, more than half a million hectares (1.2 million acres) burned in the European Union, making it the bloc’s second-worst forest fire season on record after 2017.
  • Hotter weather also saps moisture from vegetation, turning it into dry fuel that helps fires to spread.
  • Countries such as Portugal and Greece experience fires most summers. But hotter temperatures are also pushing wildfires into regions not used to them and thus less prepared to cope.
  • Forest management and ignition sources are also important factors.
  • In Europe, more than nine out of 10 fires are ignited by human activities, such as arson, disposable barbeques, electricity lines, or littered glass, according to EU data.
  • Countries, including Spain, face the challenge of shrinking populations in rural areas as people move to cities, leaving a smaller workforce to clear vegetation and dry scrub that spark forest fires.

What other countries are affected?

  • Morocco: Several fires started erupting on July 13 in the provinces of Larache, Ouezzane and Tetouan.
  • Nearly 1,618 hectares (4,000 acres) of forest were consumed by the flames, which damaged many homes, and killed one person.
  • The fires forced 1,100 people to flee 15 villages in Larache, while 645 residents were evacuated from Taza and Tetouan.
  • United States: In Texas, at least 21 homes were destroyed by wildfires, with the Forest Service saying that 99 percent of the state was experiencing some level of drought on Wednesday.
  • A fire also erupted on July 8 in part of California’s Yosemite National Park, home of some of the world’s largest and oldest giant sequoia trees. The flames consumed 1,526 hectares (3,772 acres) according to a report by InciWeb, a US interagency All-risk Incident Information management system.
  • Canada: A blaze broke out on July 14 near the village of Lytton in British Columbia. It is the most significant wildfire in the province so far this year, according to BC Wildfire Service. The day after the fire broke out, nearly  1,999 hectares (4,942 acres) were burned. Local authorities issued evacuation orders to 24 property owners close to the fire, while residents of several First Nation reserves were told to flee the area.
In this photo courtesy of the National Park Service obtained on July 11, 2022, fire fighters perform backfire operations while combating the Washburn Fire near the South Entrance of Yosemite National Park, California on July 11, 2022. - The Washburn Fire has burned over 2,430 acres and is threatening the Mariposa Grove which contains ancient giant Sequoia trees. The wildfire is at 0% containment and over 500 firefighters have already been deployed to fight it with more on the way. (Photo by Handout / NATIONAL PARK SERVICE / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / NATIONAL PARK SERVICE" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
In this photo courtesy of the National Park Service obtained on July 11, 2022, firefighters perform backfire operations while combatting the Washburn Fire near the South Entrance of Yosemite National Park [File: AFP]
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies