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If you think it is hot only in Israel, think again. With the forest fire season in Europe barely started, provisional figures show that 3,376 square kilometers of land have already been burned in 2007, compared to a total of 3,585 square kilometers in 2006, with July 2007 one of the worst-ever months on record. These figures have been released by the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS), managed by the European Commission, which produces early warnings of fire risk and damage assessment.
Following warnings of high fire risk at the end of June in countries such as Greece and Cyprus, the second half of July saw a sharp increase in fires and burnt areas in Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece and Italy. Using satellite images to map all fires affecting an area of more than 50 hectares in these four countries alone showed a total of 2,229 square kilometers of burnt land. Figures for some other countries that have experienced major fires, such as Turkey and Albania, have yet to be included in EFFIS.
The European Commission Joint Research Center set up in 1999 a research group to work specifically on the development and implementation of advanced methods for the evaluation of forest fire risk and mapping of burnt areas at the European scale. These activities led to the development of the EFFIS. Since the year 2003 EFFIS is part of the Regulation (EC) No. 2152/2003 (Forest Focus) of the European Council and Parliament on monitoring of forests and environmental interactions. All the EFFIS activities are coordinated with DG Environment to reach the final users, Civil Protection and Forest Services, in the Member States.
Reportedly, EFFIS forecasts continued risk from forest fires for the days ahead and sends these forecasts to the Civil Protection and Forest Services of the Member States of the European Union every day between February 1 and October 31. The situation in South-West Europe, which had relatively moderate conditions in July, has changed dramatically, particularly in the south of the Iberian Peninsula and the Canary Islands. These two areas are experiencing increased fires, which have not yet been included in the EFFIS figures, and continued heightened risk.
Spain has, via the European Commission, activated the International Charter "Space and Major Disasters," which aims at providing a unified system of satellite imagery acquisition and delivery to those affected by natural or man-made disasters.
EFFIS is a meteorological and satellite-based mapping system developed by the European Commission's in-house scientific arm, the Joint Research Centre (JRC). Its purpose is to provide Member States with daily fire risk warnings and subsequent damage assessments. In 2006, the European Parliament requested an extension of EFFIS services to provide information on the economic and social impacts of forest fires; this aspect is currently being developed.
EFFIS is aimed to provide relevant information for the protection of forests against fire in Europe addressing both pre-fire and post-fire conditions.
On the pre-fire phase, EFFIS is focused both on the development of systems to provide forest fire risk forecast based on existing fire risk indices, and on the development of new integrated forest fire risk indicators. These indices permit the harmonized assessment of forest fire risk at the European scale. They may be used as tools for the assessment of risk situations in cases in which international cooperation in the field of civil protection is needed. Currently, the dynamic forest fire risk forecast indices are available on the EFFIS web site and sent to the Member States Services daily from the 1st of May until the 31st of October.
On the post-fire phase, EFFIS is focused on the estimation of annual damage caused by forest fires in southern EU. All burned areas larger than 50 hectares, which account for around 75 percent of the total area burnt in southern Europe, are mapped every year using satellite imagery. The first cartography of forest fire damages in southern EU was produced on year 2000 and continued in the subsequent years. Additionally, as from 2003 a new activity for rapid assessment of forest fire damage has been developed in order to map all the fires larger than 100 hectares twice during the fire season: at the beginning of August and at the beginning of October.
There are other topics covered by EFFIS that are currently under development: these are the development of research regarding the estimation of atmospheric emissions from forest fires, monitoring of vegetation regeneration on large forest fire areas and definition of post-fire risk areas (e.g. soil erosion).
As far as atmospheric emissions, the developments foreseen are the establishment of a common methodology for a multi-year estimation of atmospheric emissions of carbon dioxide and trace gases using the burned area maps together with the CLC 2000 and other ancillary information.
The developments foreseen regarding monitoring of vegetation regeneration are establishment of methodologies to follow up the vegetation recovery using remote sensing imagery.
The author is head of the International Department at the Joseph Shem-Tov law firm.