From Faro to Marseille, a new wave of fires is raging wreaking havoc with southeastern europe. We are facing what the firemen call fifth generation fires: a simultaneity of large fires that put the extinction systems in check, in some cases even threatening urban centers.
What is happening these days in Europe is something extremely unusual. The worrying thing is that we are barely experiencing a preview of what will happen in a few years. What we now consider abnormal will soon be the new normal. When in two or three decades we remember the current campaign, it will surely seem light by comparison.
Why is this an unusual campaign?
Last year we published A study where we characterize, for the first time, the differences between European pyroregions. That is, we study how and why the fire season varies spatially and temporally in Mediterranean Europe. The results we obtained allow us to determine why the current fire campaign is extremely abnormal:
Fires out of season. Neither in Portugal nor in many areas of southern France is it common to see large fires in the first half of July. Summer water stress peaks in late August, so early summer fires were neither frequent nor extreme. Until now, large fires in the first half of July were only common in the eastern part of the peninsula: more arid areas where the vegetation becomes flammable earlier.
Europe is becoming aridas a result of climate change and rural abandonment, which homogenizes the landscape and makes it evenly dry, flush below. This is the cause of the advancement in the fire station.
Increasing intensity of fires. current fires can no longer be extinguished. They die of starvation (they have burned everything there was to burn) or because it rains. They are fires release the same energy as one or more atomic bombs and all extinguishing technology falls short against them.
The big fires are getting bigger. In other words, the average size of the fires that escape containment is increasing, and this happens because the intensity of the fires is increasing.
At the time of writing this article, it is estimated that one of the fires in Gironde (France) would be around 8,000 ha. We would be talking about the largest fire in the last 30 years in France and the third since the beginning of the Gallic record in 1973. Something similar happened in the fire in the Sierra de la Culebra (Zamora) a few weeks ago: brushed the size of the largest fires recorded in Spain.
Simultaneity of high intensity fires. It is not the first time that we are faced with a scenario of fifth generation fires. In the years 1978 and 1985, for example, there were more than 150 large fires in Spain. What is unusual about the current season is not the number of large fires, but the simultaneity of very intense fires. In addition, the simultaneity of fires is not taking place on a national scale, but rather on a subcontinental scale: Southeast Europe is in that situation. and it is expected that the United Kingdom enter a heat wave, which could bring the great fires also to the rainy British Isles.
A public health problem
Unfortunately, we know that the frequency and ferocity of heat waves will increase with climate change. During these episodes, the mortality increases because the body is decompensated, especially affecting older people or people with previous pathology.
During heat waves, the air quality also worsens significantly due to forest fires. The Meteosat images showed us, for example, how the smoke from the fires in the French Landes reached the Spanish Cantabrian coast.
Smoke inhalation is another factor that contributes to excess mortality in heat waves; is considered responsible for 417 deaths in the 2019 Sydney fires.
The danger of continued heat waves
During the heat waves the desiccant potential of the atmosphere increases and we find that many plants dry out, so they release more energy when burning.
It also reduces the humidity in the litter, facilitating the ignition and spread of the fire. Wetter areas that would normally act as firebreaks, such as valley bottoms, become as dry as those around them. That is, the landscape becomes uniformly dry.
The drying atmosphere also increases courage of forest fires, which again intensifies their behavior. That is, the convective plume from the fire can rise to great heights in the atmosphere, which can increase currents and ash transport.
What to expect in the future
The belt of fires is expanding in latitude and altitude. Large fires in parts of Europe where they were previously rare, such as the UK and Scandinavia, are becoming more common. Mountain areas, such as the Alps and the Pyrenees, are increasingly flammable.
The time when the fires they were extinguished with water it's over. We are seeing the result of decades of neglect in land management and climate inaction. We are watching the trailer for the movie of the future that we are leaving to our children and our grandchildren.