Fires rank among the top causes of damage to Europe's forests. Every year forest fires burn, on average, about 500 000 hectares in Europe — twice the area of Luxembourg. About 95 % of the total area burnt lies in the Mediterranean region, with most damage occurring during the summer. Although the number of fires in the last decade has increased in Europe, the area burnt has not risen significantly due to improved fire fighting methods.
In fact, disturbances such as naturally occurring forest fires are an element of the normal functioning of ecosystems. By creating open environments that return to forest over time, fires create a succession of habitats in which different organisms can thrive. Indeed, many species in both the Mediterranean and the northern (boreal) forests depend on such habitats.
Paradoxically, in the boreal region fire control is extremely efficient and it has become necessary to carry out planned burnings to create habitats for several threatened fire-dependant species.
The Mediterranean presents a different picture. The current fire frequency due to human activity is considered much larger than the natural rate. This constitutes a problem for human settlements and for ecosystem conditions and biodiversity. Excessively frequent fires degrade habitat quality and destroy ecosystems, including forests, which need time to develop.
In addition to losing a part of their habitat, forest animals suffer from greater distances between fragmented forest patches. Less connectivity between small forest areas makes it more difficult for animals to ensure a viable gene pool and survive in the long term.
Excessive forest fires also wipe out some of the services and benefits we obtain from forest ecosystems, including wood for buildings, paper and fuel, recreational services and food products.
The environmental impact of forest fires is not limited to biodiversity and ecosystem services. They also result in emissions of particles and gases (including CO2) into the atmosphere, outflow of mineral nutrients, and destruction of the organic layer of the soil. Furthermore, they alter the water infiltration rates in the soil, making burnt areas more prone to erosion, soil loss and landslides.
Excessive forest fires aggravate the extent of damage caused by such natural phenomena to critical levels. Recurrent fires when combined with droughts, especially in southern parts of Europe, may also lead to desertification.
Europe's forests at a glance
One-third of Europe is now covered by forests, corresponding to 185 million hectares (ha). The total forest area has increased over recent decades. Around 25 % of the total forest area is excluded from wood harvesting because of its special importance for biodiversity; EEA members and associated countries have reported an almost 40 % increase in protected forest areas from 2000 to 2005. About 87 % of forests in EEA member and collaborating countries are subject to some degree of human intervention.