Commission Joint Research Centre assesses Portugal's worst forest fire season

September 2, 2003

Brussels, August 2003

Some 355 976 ha of land had been burnt in Portugal by 20 August 2003, 301 180 ha of which was forest, according to figures derived from satellite observations by the European Commission's Joint Research Centre (JRC). The JRC used its remote-sensing expertise to map the extent of damage. These figures show that almost 6% of the forest area in Portugal was damaged twice that of the most severe year since 1980. It is equivalent to the total annual burnt area of all 5 Mediterranean countries in recent years.

Portugal has been hit extremely hard by the forest fires that flared across Europe this summer, with blazes destroying vast stretches of forests and shrub land in at least 5 of the 18 districts on the Portuguese mainland, and claiming 18 lives. Although most of the forest fires were extinguished by mid August, a combination of high temperatures and winds, and low humidity, has kept potential for new fires high.

The JRC results illustrate the tremendous impact of the 2003 forest fires in Portugal. These fires have dealt a heavy blow to Portugal's forestry industry, which accounts for 6.5% of the nation's exports. Hundreds of thousands of hectares of vegetation have been devastated, particularly in central Portugal where much of the commercial forests are located. At the national level 301 180 ha of forest area are shown to have been consumed by fire, 44 123 ha of agricultural land, 1 700 ha of settled and urban areas, and 8 973 ha of land classified as barren (sparse vegetation). See annex for details.

European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin comments: "Although forest fires are a regular occurrence in Portugal in the summer, the unusually hot dry air and strong winds of this year have made the fires of 2003 the worst in living memory. The JRC's fast and effective action in mapping the surface areas affected by the fire helps the Commission and the Portuguese authorities in assessing the subsequent environmental, economic and social impact of those occurrences."

European-wide collaboration

The catastrophic events of this summer spurred the JRC INFOREST group to activate the European Forest Fires Damage Assessment System (EFFDAS) before the end of the 2003 fire season. As part of the JRC in Ispra, Italy, the group is actively working on the development and implementation of advanced methods for the evaluation of forest fire risk and for estimating the extent of burnt areas in the EU (EFFIS: European Forest Fire Information System). Collaboration has been established with the relevant services of Member States since 1998, coordinated by the Civil Protection Unit of DG Environment at the European Commission, with the aim of developing a European Forest Fire Information System.

On 18 August, after the largest fires had finally been extinguished, a satellite image from the Indian Remote Sensing Satellite Wide Field Sensor (WiFS) taken on August 8th was acquired by the JRC and quickly processed. The WiFS images have a spatial resolution of 180 m, and are routinely used in EFFDAS, allowing the mapping of all burnt areas of at least 50 ha in size. The results of this analysis were already available on 20 August, allowing a preliminary estimate of the damages. As no WiFS images were available for later dates, the International Charter "Space and Major Disasters Agreement" was activated on 19 August, at the initiative of the Commission's Civil Protection Unit. This enabled the JRC to obtain new satellite images rapidly from space agencies covering Portugal from the 15 August onwards.

An image from the MODIS instrument on board the NASA-TERRA satellite on 20 August was considered the best choice. This sensor has spectral characteristics comparable to the WiFS images although spatial resolution is slightly lower (250 m). The assessment of the extent of burned area in Portugal was derived from these satellite images. Data from the Portuguese National Forest Inventory of 1995 was used to derive the statistics of the burnt area by land use and forest types.

The results of the analysis of the MODIS images in combination with the previous WiFS image were made available on August 26, 2003, leading to the current estimate of 355 976 ha of total area burned. These results were immediately communicated to the relevant instances within the Commission and to the Portuguese competent authorities.

EFFIS also used for preventive measures

Although the risk of forest fire is influenced by many different factors that fluctuate widely in time and over geographical areas, the risk of fire is usually evaluated at a local or sometimes national level. However, forest fire risk is not exclusively a local phenomenon. Variables at the regional level have a direct influence on forest fire risk. It would be therefore desirable to look at the forest fire problem from a broader perspective, taking into account regional variables at the European level. In response to this problem, the European Commission developed a coherent forest fire information system for Europe.

DG Environment and the Joint Research Centre have established, as part of EFFIS, the European Forest Fire Risk Forecasting System (EFFRFS), with the aim of providing a pan-European approach to the evaluation of long-term and short-term forest fire risks. EFFRFS uses special indices for the evaluation of the fire risk, among them the Fire Potential Index (FPI) that takes into account differences between regions, forest vegetation types and dynamic variables such as the vegetation's relative greenness and meteorological conditions.

The fire risk forecast maps computed by EFFRFS are distributed every morning via Internet to the civil protection and forest fire services in the Member States, as well as to the Civil Protection services of DG Environment. These maps constitute an additional source of information for the Member States and are essential to reinforce international collaboration during forest fire fighting campaigns.

For further information see web site: http://natural-hazards.jrc.it/fires/

See also IP/03/1177 and Memo/03/164 of today.

IP/03/1147 of 4 August: "Commission co-ordinates EU aid to fight forest fires in Portugal and France", is available at: http://www.jrc.cec.eu.int/

Annex [Table and further information]

DN: MEMO/03/165 Date: /08/2003

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