By George Markopouliotis
Every year there are devastating forest fires in Europe, destroying thousands of hectares of forests. Although the South European countries are at a higher risk, no European country is immune.
When a forest fire gets too big for a country to extinguish it on its own, the European Union’s Civil Protection Mechanism, which comes under the portfolio of Commissioner Christos Stylianides, can be activated to ensure a coordinated response.European countries often show solidarity by sending assistance in the form of water bombing planes, helicopters, fire-fighting equipment and personnel. There is a structured way of doing this at European level.
The Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC) is the emergency response hub of the European Commission. It coordinates pan-European assistance through the European Union’s Civil Protection Mechanism and ensures that all participating states in the mechanism are quickly informed of needs from an affected country during a crisis. The decision to activate the Civil Protection Mechanism is not made by the Commission, but by the national authorities of the affected country.
The EU Civil Protection Mechanism also facilitates and co-finances the transport of assistance to the affected area.
The ERCC actively monitors forest fire risk and occurrence across Europe and connects together civil protection authorities across Europe.
It does this through national monitoring services and tools such as the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS), which provides an overview of the data that European countries collect through their national forest fire programmes; organising regular meetings with all the Participating States in the EU Civil Protection Mechanism before the forest fire season in order to have an exchange of information on the state of preparedness; over the summer period, the ERCC organises weekly video conferences with the countries at high risk of forest fires: Croatia, France, Greece, Italy, Portugal (photo) and Spain.
The primary responsibility for prevention as well as response lies with the country where the disaster occurs. The Commission’s main role is to coordinate a quick and efficient response through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism when activated.
The European Civil Protection Mechanism is frequently activated as a result of forest fires inside Europe and also overseas.
During the 2012 forest fire season there were nine requests for assistance and one pre alert: Bulgaria, Montenegro, Albania, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Greece and Portugal requested aerial support and Spain opened a pre alert case. In 2013, the Mechanism was activated to respond to requests for assistance for forest fires in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Portugal. In 2014, the EU Civil Protection Mechanism was activated as a result of a request for assistance from Sweden and Greece and for a pre-alert in Norway.
In 2015 and 2016, Greece, Cyprus, France, and Portugal activated the mechanism in the context of forest fires. The 2017 summer season has been marked by an exceptionally high activity in terms of forest fires. As of August 8 , the mechanism has been activated by Portugal, Montenegro, France, Albania, and twice by Italy.
The EU Copernicus Emergency Management Service satellite mapping service has also been activated repeatedly in response to forest fires-related emergencies.
The EU Civil Protection Mechanism facilitates the cooperation in disaster response among 34 European states (28 EU Member States, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Iceland, Montenegro, Norway Serbia and Turkey).
Since its launch in 2001, the EU Civil Protection Mechanism has monitored over 400 disasters and has received almost 300 requests for assistance. It intervened in some of the most devastating disasters the world has faced, including the floods in Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina (2014), the Ebola outbreak in West Africa (2014), the conflict in Ukraine (2014), the earthquake in Nepal (2015), the conflict in Iraq (2016) and hurricane “Matthew” in Haiti (2016).
*Markopouliotis is head of the European Commission Representation in Cyprus