Could this year’s summer fires have beenprevented? Probably not

August 7, 2003

WHILE holiday-makers revel in the sun, exhausted fire-fighters in Portugal, France, Spain and elsewhere in Europe are battling blazes that have destroyed at least 200,000 hectares (494,000 acres) of forest and killed at least 30 people in the past two weeks.
 Portugal has been hardest hit; its prime minister has declared a “public calamity”. At least 14 people have been killed, thousands have lost their homes, 100,000-plus have been left without electricity, and more than 54,000 hectares of forest have been destroyed.
Forest fires are a natural phenomenon in Mediterranean climes, made worse by careless fag-smoking walkers and barbecuers and by the odd arsonist. But this year’s long drought, extraordinarily high temperatures and high winds have proved a particularly potent cocktail.
In France some areas have hardly had any rain since February and the thermometer has been flirting with the national all-time record of 44°C set in 1923. More than half of France’s departments have asked for state aid for drought-hit farmers.
For all their destructive force, the fires offer a chance for European integrationists to show their mettle. The European Commission’s Rapid Response Centre has tried to co-ordinate an international response. Since its inception last year, the centre has had the job of responding to man-made and natural disasters. This time it has helped seven countries to aid the two worst-hit countries, Portugal and France. In addition, Portugal has appealed for cash from the EU’s Solidarity Fund for Disaster Relief; it has also asked NATO for more fire-fighting equipment.
Another EU-funded body, the European Forest Fire Information System, is meant to predict and so prevent large-scale fires. But its co-ordinator, Jesus San Miguel, says that this summer’s conditions have been so extreme that preventive measures have made precious little difference.


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