Sweden’s ‘chaotic’ response to historic wildfires criticized

08 February 2019

SWEDEN – A Swedish government report released this week said that the country’s response to last summer’s historic wildfires was plagued with mistakes.
The report said that earlier action could have mitigated some of the damage from the fires that raged through the country as a result of a scorching heatwave. The fires, the worst of their kind in more than 50 years, took weeks to get under control and destroyed some 25,000 hectares of forest.
Government investigator Jan-Åke Björklund characterized parts of the reactions to the fires as “chaotic” and said that officials reacted too slowly and cautiously and abandoned some fire-fighting efforts prematurely.
The report also pointed out a number of other shortcomings, including the inadequate preparation of volunteers and the delayed deployment of helicopters. Björklund submitted a number of proposals for how officials can improve their response to wildfires. Among those were better tools for assessing risks, more training and a more aggressive approach to fires at the outset.
He said that areas of Sweden that had established fire management systems in place reacted much quicker and better than areas in which no pre-established system was in place.
“When you have system management, [you can respond] in minutes. If you don’t, you’re talking about days,” he said.
Speaking to Radio Sweden after the release of his report, Björklund said that “a combination of luck and skill” helped to minimize the impact of the 2018 fires but that Sweden might not be so lucky next time.
“We must draw the conclusion that Sweden is not sufficiently secure from future big forest fires,” he said.
The investigator said that smaller municipalities should take steps now to ensure that they are ready for the coming summer, suggesting that they practice fire response techniques and learn how to better predict risks.
Interior Minister Mikael Damberg said the government would take the criticisms to heart. He said preparations are already underway to avoid a repeat of 2018, including allotting 65 million kronor to the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB) to purchase equipment and helicopters.
“Come this summer, Sweden will be better equipped,” he said.
The 2018 wildfires resulted in large-scale evacuations and left drought-hit farmers reeling and in need of a 1.2 billion kronor ($137 million) aid package from the government. But the damage to Sweden’s forests was not only a huge blow financially, it also had a major cultural impact due to the vital role that woodland plays in Swedish lifestyle.