From record drought to record heat: looking back on the 2023 fire season

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As global temperatures surge, the summer wildfire season has witnessed a staggering increase in both the frequency and intensity of wildfires, covering regions that are not typically prone to fire. Closely following the latest updates, FIRE-RES advocates for an integrated fire management strategy to address the issue. 

Summer 2023 stood out as the hottest on record on the global surface, in the record-setting trend of the past nine years and with the global mean temperature difference accelerating since the 1980s. Our planet underwent its warmest June-July-August period and experienced its highest recorded temperatures for September  too. The heat manifested itself after an outstanding dry time, marked by low rainfall precipitations and insufficient snowfalls in Europe. Droughts already had considerable impacts on nearly all European regions, especially in 2018, 2022 and 2023.  

Figure 1 Line chart of six datasets tracking global average temperature anomalies from an 1850-1900 average. Photograph: World Meteorological Organization

What impacts has it had on forests? With their vulnerability already heightened over the last two decades, the higher temperatures dried out the landscape, making the vegetation highly flammable and increasing the likelihood of fires and their rapid spread. This paved the way for yet another challenging wildfire summer season in and outside Europe, resulting in a greater diversity of impacted landscapes, with visible effects on traditionally low fire-prone contexts. 

Not unexpectedly, extreme wildfire events were witnessed too. According to the latest Joint Research Centre report on Forest Fires in Europe, Middle East and North Africa, the burned area in 2023 was smaller than in 2022, yet many wildfires proved uncontrollable by conventional firefighting methods, challenging the suppression capacities of firefighting bodies. Such was the case with the Evros wildfire in Greece, the largest wildfire ever recorded in the European Union, which resulted in more than 93.500 hectares burned and 20 people killed. In the rest of the world, the Maui wildfire in Hawaii killed more than 100 people and incinerated a large portion of the island. Meanwhile, Canada experienced its most severe wildfire season on record, with more than 18.5 million hectares of land burned as of 19 October 2023. 

2023 wildfires in the spotlight 

Greece, where a FIRE-RES Living Lab is located, was affected by a particularly tough wildfire season, entering the summer of 2023 with an overstock of vegetation and grass fuel. In this context, the successive heatwaves of July and August became catalysts for the largest wildfire events Europe has experienced during the last two decades. The first severe conflagrations happened in July both close to Athens, on the Island of Rhodes and in Thessaly. This first wave resulted in the evacuation of 30.000 tourists, two fatalities, and the destruction of military equipment from wildfire-caused explosions. 

The situation escalated on 19 August, when the Evros wildfire, stemming from two distinct sources – one ignited by lightning and another by human activities – converged within a day of intense fire spread. It led to the destruction of 93.500 hectares of forest and rural areas and was classified as an extreme wildfire event due to its fast propagation, development of a pyrocumulonimbus cloud and unpredictable behaviour. The smoke affected regions more than 500 kilometres away from the burning area for more than a week, and the reported death toll rose to 20 people. The strong winds coupled with the extreme heat aggravated the impacts. The FIRE-RES project innovations have the potential to help accelerate the pace and effectiveness of the fuel treatments for the next years, fostering more informed decision-making on the scale, arrangement, allocation, and size of the implemented wildfire hazard reduction projects.

Wildfires in Chile flared in early February, across several central and southern regions with 430.000 ha burned. Almost half the area was in the regions of Araucanía and BioBío, the latter hosting a FIRE-RES Living Lab. Twenty-six people died, over 3.500 people were injured and 7.700 people were left homeless. The wildfires followed a megadrought and were fostered by extreme temperatures and strong winds. Almost 100% of the wildfires were human-induced, 32% of which are estimated to be intentional, 65% accidental and 4% unknown. 

The Canary Islands have been regularly affected by forest fires in the last decades, especially during periods of dry and hot weather. Summer 2023 was no exception, with a first major wildfire breaking out on 15 July in La Palma, burning 4.650 hectares, destroying 20 buildings and forcing 4.000 people to evacuate. Only a month later, firefighters confronted the most severe fire in Tenerife in decades, which required 10 days to be contained and an entire month to be controlled. In this case, more than 14.000 hectares were burned, and more than 12.000 people were evacuated. Hot weather and strong winds reportedly accompanied the intense burning. The ravaged ravines in the August fires later reignited in a new blaze on 5 October. It coincided with a heat alert, highlighting the pattern of temperatures typical of summer extending into the autumn months. FIRE-RES implementation activities are about to start in the Living Lab focused on Gran Canaria Island.

Credits: Associated Press/Lapresse (apn)

In Canada, over 18.5 million hectares were impacted by wildfires, fuelled by warmer temperatures and droughts. The persistent fire-conducive weather conditions manifested during spring, with the warmest May-July period in over 80 years and particularly low relative humidity. The conflagrations doubled the carbon emissions of the previous annual record. In contrast to prior years, 2023 fires spanned across various regions, stretching from the West Coast to the Atlantic provinces and the North. By mid-July, there were 29 mega-fires, each exceeding 100.000 hectares. Seventeen direct fatalities were reported, among which at least 4 wildland firefighters since July. Plus, more than 200.000 citizens were evacuated. Vulnerable communities such as indigenous, fly-in, and other remote groups were disproportionately impacted by the lack of services and obstacles to response interventions. Unlike the usual fire season pattern, where the blazes alleviate around August, this year an intense episode of rapid fire growth advanced in the following months up into October.  

Figure 2 Annual Area burned in Canada - Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre Inc

In the state of Hawaii, as a consequence of dry and windy conditions – the latter exacerbated by the effects of Hurricane Dora – several wildfires hit Maui and Hawaii islands as of 8 August 2023. The state is notoriously exposed to drying trends, as it experienced the largest rainfall decline since the last century. Not only did the exceptional weather circumstances foster the outbreaks but they significantly contributed to hindering the emergency management by affecting power disruptions, road viability, helicopter action, and communications. The 114 fatalities affirmed the events among the deadliest US wildfires of the last century. The damages to the local economy, largely based on tourism, are hard to quantify in the magnitude of what has been defined as the largest natural disaster in Hawaii’s state history. The typical area burned by wildfires in Hawaii has increased in recent decades, almost quadrupling. This surge is attributed to the proliferation of non-native vegetation and the hotter, drier climatic conditions resulting from climate change. The decrease in agricultural activities in Hawaii has left previously cultivated lands unattended, making them susceptible to invasion by non-native species such as guinea grass, further contributing to the issue. 

Credits: (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)

Heading towards a new normal 

Even though the European wildfire season this summer was not as destructive as, for instance, 2017 and 2021, global heatwaves are likely to surge to record levels in the next five years. Europe is expected to experience an increasing number of summer days with ‘very strong’ heat stress in the long term. Climate change effects in some regions can be exacerbated by weather patterns such as El Niño, pushing temperatures higher worldwide and increasing the likelihood of prolonged dry spells with the potential for wildfire ignition – in turn reinforcing the  Climate feedback loop. Moreover, changing land management practices and fire regime are leading to the accumulation of more wildfire fuel in the environment, while the abandonment of agricultural land has resulted in invasive species dominating whole landscapes, such as Guinea grass in Hawaii and eucalypt and acacias in many Mediterranean landscapes. 

Climate change projections developed in FIRE-RES also hint at an expected higher incidence of harsh weather conditions, favourable to the development of extreme wildfire events, especially towards the end of the century. Drawing from the different evaluated scenarios, the high-emission and fossil-fuel-dependent pathway highlights increasing values of around 4.9ºC in southern and central Europe and 6.5ºC in Northern Europe.  

Within the most traditional fire-prone regions, the southern Iberian Peninsula and southern Greece (Regions of Central Greece and the Peloponnese) are the ones with a higher increase in the fire weather index projected, a numerical indicator of wildfire risk based on weather variables, including wind and temperature. Central Europe, including the Netherlands, Belgium, Northern France, Germany and Poland, are also projected to reach moderate levels of the index at the end of the century. 

In other words, wildfires are expected to keep growing in frequency and severity, with more regions exposed to risks and potentially longer fire seasons, setting the scene for what seems to be the new normal. Simultaneously, extreme wildfire events are also becoming more present and all territories in Europe could be affected by it. Climate change mitigation requires a radical transformation in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and significant systemic changes. In addition, the traditional strategies to tackle wildfires, revolving around suppression, are no longer as effective in addressing this evolving scenario. There is a need for an enlargement of practices, adding to traditional suppression strategies a broader wildfire management scope including increased investments in landscape management, knowledge generation, and awareness-raising efforts. 

Another crucial element of this “new normal” is the occurrence of extreme wildfire events. While they were once rare and only affected extensive areas, today, smaller yet more frequent wildfires are displaying extreme behaviour, characterized by rapid propagation and the formation of pyrocumulonimbus clouds. The trend seriously challenges the suppression capacity of firefighting services all over the world, as the occurrences in Greece demonstrated this summer. 

What can be done? 

Precisely because the suppression-based approaches are demonstrating their limits, a greater emphasis is necessary on understanding the root causes and impacts of fires, advocating for a more holistic Integrated Management Approach and the emergence of fire resilience territories. 

Prevention & Preparedness. An estimated  95% of wildfires in Europe are directly or indirectly caused by human behaviour and activities, including negligence and arson. In light of this, educatingthe population is key. The capability to transfer knowledge and awareness for an appropriate evaluation of fire-related risk is a crucial responsibility of governments and public institutions and the latest insights highlight the urgency to adapt official communication strategies. An immersive Education Platform is among the expected outcomes of FIRE-RES, to improve the common understanding of fire risk, behaviour and ecology so that communities can prepare and implement fire resilient actions. The FIRE-RES ‘Fire Forums’ aim at testing a participatory decision-making process, including face-to-face meetings and field visits with decision-makers to discuss future fire scenarios, values and responsibilities. The project also established a set of ambitious goals to contribute to the EU Green Deal. Among them, it aspires to lower the fire-connected fatalities, reduce accidental fire ignitions and make Natura 2000 areas fire-resilient by 2030.  

Adaptation and restoration. Efficient and diversified landscape maintenance is recognised to assist in making territories more resilient to fires. A correct analysis of data collected during the year and over decades can indicate what interventions are more urgently needed on a territory, along with a rapid verification of mapping and zoning in vulnerable or impacted areas. In FIRE-RES, partners are further expanding the knowledge on what makes a fire resilient landscape. But they also go beyond theoretical concepts to develop financing mechanisms and value chain solutions to improve the financial viability of nature-based solutions, making them not only accessible but desirable options for land managers to support the design and plan of landscapes. The recently launched Wildfires Resilient Landscapes Network, in which FIRE-RES will play a central role, may open the path to develop innovative tools with the finance industry, crucial to scale sciencebased solutions. 

Detection & Response. Insights from 2023 highlight the relevance of early warning systems, sometimes inadequate, late or absent. When it comes to extreme wildfire events though, the ability to model their behaviour and interactions with the atmosphere will be a game changer to facilitate decision-making for preparation, response and evacuations. Among the FIRE-RES innovation actions, one aims at improving models to estimate fire behaviour and impacts, revisiting the fire combustion processes leading to extreme events. Another one is focused on integrating weather and vegetation conditions into early-warning indicators of wildfire events, with the support of machine learning techniques and extreme value theory. The produced tools are expected to be easily implemented in existing wildfire information systems.  

Towards a more fire-resilient Europe? 

In 2023, the EU Civil Protection Mechanism was activated nine times, with a strengthened RescEU firefighting fleet and hundreds of firefighters available for immediate support. However, conscious of the limits of fire suppression capacity, the European Commission is shifting the focus on prevention and preparedness, by collecting accurate information across the member states and sensitising decision-makers to the importance of targeted investments in resilience. Furthermore, a  Wildfire Prevention Action Plan  was designed in 2022 to improve the member states’ capacity to prevent wildfires. Further improvements are needed in terms of interoperability of equipment, personnel and communication between different countries. Better mutual knowledge and a stronger connection are fundamental to standardise firefighting methodologies, tactics and harmonize command/control. 

As emphasized during the FIRE-RES policy debate in Brussels on October 24 “Towards a fire resilient Europe: can we do better?”, Europe must adapt to a new wildfires management paradigm, prioritizing prevention, preparedness, resilient landscape management, and risk-informed communities. This holistic and multidisciplinary approach extends to innovative funding mechanisms, ensuring policy coherence, and fostering collaboration among experts, researchers, and policymakers to bridge information gaps and inform future policymaking processes. 

Authors: Beatrice Bellavia 

Contributors: Guillaume Corradino, Antoni Trasobares, Pau Brunet-Navarro, Laia Casafont, Sergio Pirone, Andrea Duane, Dolors Armenteras, Edgar Neboth Hernandez, Ruth Ryan, Valerie Charlton, Kostas D. Kalabokidis, Palaiologos Palaiologou, Jean-Paul Monet. 

FIRE-RES is a European Union-funded research project which aims to develop an integrated fire management strategy to efficiently and effectively address extreme wildfire events in Europe. This planning and operational approach includes social, economic, cultural and ecological dimensions which will be deployed and demonstrated in eleven Living Labs across Europe and South America. The project will run until November 2025. 

Disclaimer: This publication reflects only the author’s view. The Agency and European Commission are not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.