European wildfire spending: how to put fires out at the worst of times

In 2014, Swiss insurer CSS took a $9bn hit from the cost of natural disasters such as bushfires, drought and hurricanes. In 2017 the cost hit more than $14bn.

On Saturday a flare burst off in the south-western corner of Germany, exploding over what would become a huge wildfire. Over a 30-kilometre radius, it was one of the most expensive fires ever to burn in Europe – nearly 40% larger than the Borås fires of 2014. All told, the current European emergency seems set to surpass those from 2014. A new report from insurer Munich Re says that if weather conditions do not worsen, Europe’s fire expenditure this year could be as high as $7.6bn.

For the continent as a whole, the fire losses have risen sharply in the last five years, although the UK has been particularly at risk from embers. Bavaria, where the Borås fire occurred, last week suffered a major fire that killed three people. (In addition to the German fires, other freak conditions have posed a threat to the South of France and parts of Austria.)

Sustainability campaigners argue that bad weather is one of the reasons why the impact of climate change is having such a large impact on natural disasters, but that, even when accounts are calculated using technological advances, such as climate-smart farm systems, fire loss remains a major problem. “The most significant challenge is not getting better. It’s about managing it better,” says Adrian Cheung, co-founder of EUResearch, a non-profit group that studies and advises on disaster risk reduction.

At a meeting in November, governments from across Europe will work out ways to improve firefighting methods, said the head of the European Commission’s disaster management office (DioQ). They will also consider removing the roughly 5% of trees that die every year, one of the reasons why so many eucalyptus trees, which are extremely difficult to replace, are put up along highways.

For Germany, that effort could include reducing the height of trees in urban areas, since tall ones are vital for basic safety. A wind-driven bushfire burning up the Rhine river and killing people in Switzerland last year could have been stopped by cutting down even more trees near the river.

Germany has so far been able to salvage much of its forestry from last year’s wildfires and other disaster incidents, but is still in the process of checking trees for cancer and other conditions. Large-scale tree felling was banned in 1983, after 1,300 died in a fire in the Rhineland. But since then Germany has managed to reduce its forest cover from 47% to just 26% of its total area, and this is a major contributor to forest fires. A commission is considering whether to lift the ban.

Elsewhere, wood-burning stoves remain the biggest cause of fires in Europe. Germany last year banned kiln-burners in order to limit the risk of chimney fires. The plan will be extended to other countries in May.

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European authorities are also trying to cut fuel that results in dangerous levels of black carbon – harmful soot – burning in fireplaces and in car tailpipes, said DioQ’s Franz Koehler. The practice is promoted as a way to reduce air pollution, although it also causes severe health problems. The EU plans to make black carbon illegal by 2022.

Although smoke from fires breaks down in shorter time, over time the wood can accumulate, releasing more ozone and pollution in the long term. Some countries, such as Sweden, have found ways to trap it inside cylinders. Some organisations at the European level are also commissioning research on ways to make better briquettes to burn, says Martin Ferstmoe, head of research for the European Environment Agency.

Koehler is hopeful that better technology can help restore balance, but admits that it may take time. “There are a lot of innovations that people need to work on,” he says. “It’s a slow process.”

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