The Swedish town on the frontline of the Arctic wildfires

The Swedish town on the frontline of the Arctic wildfires

30 July 2018

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SWEDEN – Until this month, nobody would have imagined that the bucolic Lapland town of Jokkmokk could be home to one of the world’s busiest fire brigades.

Nestled beside a bank of pink willowherb and the start line of the Arctic 220km ski marathon, the fire station normally has just three full-time staff and a team of volunteers. During the dark, freezing winters, that is enough hands to deal with the usual electric fires and traffic accidents. During the 24-hour sunlight of the summer, they can usually manage with the aftermath of lightning strikes and barbecue accidents.

But after two freakishly hot, dry months in Sweden and much of the Arctic and Europe, this station has found itself alarmingly overstretched. In just 12 days, they have had to tackle eight wildfires, the biggest of which tore across an area of boreal forest the size of 900 football pitches and sent smoke billowing through the Lule valley.

To cope, they have called in reinforcements from neighbouring regions, army personnel, home guard members and volunteers from the small local community, including refugees. They have hired helicopters, bulldozers and excavators. On some days, the team has swollen to 130 members.

“We have forest fires every year, but never so many big ones in such a short time,” said the acting chief of the fire station, Gunnar Lundström, who went 43 hours without sleep during the peak period of the recent blazes.

Earlier in the day, he had surveyed the damage from a helicopter. “Look at the fire line,” he says, showing one mobile phone image of green forest meeting black and brown canopies. He then flicks over to another on the ground. “See? The streams have dried up.”

Soon after he returned to the station, he was called off to another fire. It was almost midnight when he sat back in the canteen to explain the weather conditions that have turned this region into a tinderbox.

“It’s an extraordinary summer. We’ve hardly had rain in two months and it’s been very hot. We never used to get temperatures above 30C.”

It has been a similar story across much of the world this summer, as temperature records are broken in north Africa, California and Georgia, droughts threaten the UK and Europe, and deadly heatwaves have killed hundreds of people in Greece and Japan.

The Arctic Circle and surrounding northern climes might once have been considered a refuge, but global warming is more pronounced in these regions than elsewhere. Satellites have recently tracked massive fires in Siberia that have sent clouds of smoke across the north pole to Greenland and Canada. Norwegian authorities have reported three times more wildfires already than are normal in an entire year.

Sweden has been hit by more than 60 forest fires this month, forcing the evacuations of three communities, disrupting train services and prompting appeals for help under the European Union’s civil protection mechanism. France has dispatched soldiers, Italy sent water bombing aircraft, while Denmark, Norway and Estonia also provided fire fighters and equipment.

Most of the fires are in south and central Sweden, but even Lapland in the north has suffered. Over-extended fire services have relied on local communities for help near the frontline.

Among Jokkmokk’s population of 3,100, this has meant teachers, students, holidaymakers and asylum seekers taking up hoses to douse down the forest near the fires.

Lundström’s wife Ana – a former firefighter – is among the volunteers. As she was dousing down one area of the forest last week, she saw a reindeer. “I told it to go away or it would end up as a barbecue,” she said. On other days, she has ferried food to firefighters in the forest or driven volunteers to the front in a minivan.

Among them is Haben Okbazghi, a 20-year-old refugee from Eritrea, who has lived in Jokkmokk for a few years and has spent the past seven days helping in the forest. Despite the heat and smoke, he says he is glad to contribute. “I want to help. This is my home,” he says as he and other refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia head out to do another night shift channelling water on the embers.

In recent days, long-awaited rain has helped the firefighters extinguish the flames in all eight fire sites around Jokkmokk, which is just inside the Arctic Circle. But crews are being called away to blazes in other regions, while work continues here to prevent the hot undergrowth from reigniting.

Johan Edderbo, a doctor of philosophy, is among the volunteers hosing down the ashy forest floor and blackened tree stumps. “This is obviously connected to climate change. You just don’t see these kinds of droughts in Sweden and Scandinavia,” he says as a jet of water pumped from a nearby marsh cools the forest floor. “At least we have the resources to deal with it. Sweden has lost a lot of forest and fodder. We will have to import a million extra tonnes of animal food this year. We have the money, but in other times in history or other countries this would be very serious.”

There are no reports of injuries or deaths from the fire here or elsewhere in Sweden but the ecological and economic damage has yet to be calculated.

Nature reserves and commercial forests have been affected. While wildlife is likely to recover, the plantations – which supply timber mills, paper mills and furniture companies like Ikea – have taken a hit.

Experience from the last big fire in 2006 suggests the biggest trees might survive, but many of the smaller ones will have to be cleared and the land replanted. The only possible market for the blackened wood is a power plant, says forest manager Christian Rimpi as he walks through one of the worst-affected areas.

“We’ve lost 40 or 50 years in the younger forests that burned. It’s very, very sad. It’s such a waste,” he said.

Overall though, he is positive. Only a fraction of the vast forest here is burned and even that will grow back. He believes the affected owners will be able to claim compensation and this year will go down as a particularly bad fire year.

Whether the Arctic blazes prove the exception or the norm depends how climate change unfolds. Scientists have warned that lightning strikes are likely to become more frequent as more energy enters the atmosphere from a warming planet. Weather fronts – both hot and cold – are also lingering longer which makes their impacts such as drought or flood more pronounced.

For now, the situation in Jokkmokk is under control. But blazes still rage elsewhere in Sweden and another dry spell here followed by wind could whip up new fires.

In the long term, the fire chief Lundström believes there is reason for heightened caution.

“This will probably become more common because of the changing weather,” he says. “You can see that it is getting warmer because the tree line is moving higher up the mountains. Something is happening. We need to be prepared. Humanity needs to take more care.”

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