European research helps fight fires in Southern Europe

September 2, 2003

Brussels, August 2003

Due to this summer's unprecedented heat wave, we have been witnessing particularly devastating fires in Southern Europe, particularly around the Mediterranean. Hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest in Portugal, France, Spain and Italy have gone up in smoke, causing loss of life, destruction of homes, and millions of Euros in damage. European forest fire research is helping to fight such problems by providing improved fire suppression techniques, from the air and on the ground, and through daily fire danger maps, which provide valuable information to civil protection authorities to dispatch their ground forces and heavy equipment. Fire monitoring equipment and remote smoke and fire detection devices used to supplement human lookout towers are also being used in the fight against forest fires. These techniques and deliverables result from a series of EU research projects.

Research on Forest fires has been supported by the European Union since the late 1980s, through its Framework Programmes (FP) for Research and Technological Development. Since 1999, at the start of FP4, over two dozen European projects have been funded with an EU contribution of approximately €23.5 million, which have grouped together partners from over 15 countries. Research results that are being used operationally derive from multinational and multidisciplinary research consortia from several projects including MINERVE, FIERS, RAPSODI, FIMEX, ACRE, ERAS and SPREAD (see websites for more detailed information).

Supporting fire and post-fire landscape management

Within the scope of the SPREAD project ( ), a new mobile watch tower has been developed with the support of the National Civil Protection Service. This tower was used in some of the major fires in Central Portugal this summer, namely the fire of Sertã that burned 35000 Ha. The SPREAD consortium is working hard towards the development and implementation of an integrated forest fire management system for Europe. It will provide an end-to-end solution with inputs from Earth observation and meteorological data, information on the human dimension of fire risk, and assimilation of these data in fire prevention and fire behaviour models. Through a better understanding of physical processes involved in surface and crown fire propagation and their heat and smoke emissions, it will improve the capacity to predict fire behaviour to support fire management activities. The decision support capabilities will also explore strategies for ecosystem preservation and the mitigation of forest fires impacts. These new tools for fire and post-fire landscape management are being developed in close co-operation with regional and national agencies.

Predicting fire prone areas 

The MINERVE projects have lead to the validation of the Canadian Fire Danger Index in Southern Europe. This index, which allows experts to assess fire risk on the basis of forest fuel, in combination with meteorological data, has been used in areas of the Mediterranean since 1995. During fire seasons, the information provided is being used on a daily basis and consequently, during this torrid summer, a great number of fire fighter attack groups have been positioned to work in the most sensitive areas. The FIERS project subsequently built on the achievements of MINERVE to develop daily fire index maps using AVHRR satellite data. These maps have helped national civil protection authorities in France and Italy decide how to best dispatch their fire fighting planes in a more efficient manner.

Detecting fires

The European landscape is a densely populated one, hence rapid detection is paramount to avoid disaster. Fire detection is often done by positioning fire fighters in lookout towers. RAPSODI has developed an automatic forest fire detection system that supplements lookout towers, which is especially useful in remote areas. It uses a video sensor to detect smoke signals and then notifies headquarters of the impending danger. Several areas in Southern France, including Esterel, Marseille and the Pont du Gard, are equipped with this sensor.

Fighting fires on the ground and in the air

Fires can be fought on the ground and in the air. In order to aid ground forces, FIMEX ( ) has developed a new fire extinguishing system using explosive hoses, which are strategically placed to surround the fire. As the flames approach the hoses, a blasting device is used to set off the water-filled hoses. The water is then discharged in thin particles to extinguish the fire and to prevent it from spreading further.

But sometimes water is not enough.

The ERAS and ACRE projects ( ) have developed techniques for the improved application of fire retardants, which can be up to 3-8 times more effective than water, applied using ground equipment and also from the air. Fire retardants consist of chemical products added to water which help suffocate the flames. They may be applied preventively in areas of high risk, well before a fire starts, and during a fire. These retardants are being widely used by pilots in combating the ongoing fires ravaging the Mediterranean. At nightfall however, water bombers are no longer able to fly due to poor visibility, so fire suppression has to be carried out with ground forces.

The ERAS project has improved retardant application by ground means, which also has no negative impact of the environment. Ten thousand hectares were sprayed with retardants during the fire of Vidauban in the Var Department (Southern France) and it was found that out of 7 retardant barriers, 6 proved highly effective in the protection of homes at the urban-wildland interface.

Fires at the wildland-urban interface

Many Mediterranean villages flank scenic forested hills, but when the flames reach the neighbour's house, matters deteriorate. WARM ( ) investigates fires at the wildland-urban interface, in particular assessing the fire resistance of different building materials. This project is still ongoing, and is expected to give promising results on how we can effectively protect our homes, and ourselves.

Making fires to stop fires

The FIRETORCH ( ) project investigated techniques of prescribed burning, commonly used in North America, and its applicability to Mediterranean areas. Forest fuels are a major factor in fire behaviour, and their availability will determine fire intensity. Prescribed burning implies starting fires beneath the tree canopy in order to reduce the quantity of hazardous forest fuel, before it can get too voluminous. It is a dangerous procedure, so it must be carried out in strategic areas and under strict supervision, in the autumn, winter or spring, when fire hazard is low. Spain, France and Portugal are using prescribed burning techniques for forest fire management.


Project Acronym: MINERVE

Title: Feux de forêts: modelisation incendie et études de risques pour la valorisation de l'environnement

Objective: The objective of the project is to develop a computer tool for risk studies allowing rapid fire detection by the determination of ignition possibilities and for simulation studies predicting the evolution of a forest fire and defining the consequences that this accident could have on the forest, dwellings and specific plants at risk.

General Information: The programme comprises three main research and development lines which are: risk studies, experimental and theoretical studies of fire and the realisation of the computer code.

These studies will be carried out jointly in four European Community countries, particularly hit by forest fires, namely Spain, France, Italy and Portugal, in which data on vegetation type, soil nature, possible different meteorological conditions and site topography will be collected in order to analyse the risks of inflammation and combustion. Images from NOAA and LANDSAT satellites will be also analysed and compared with the other data in order to determine standardised European risk indexes.

Analytical and experimental studies will be performed to study the fire spread and intensity according to fuel and topographical and meteorological conditions, as well as, the nature and atmospheric diffusion of the gases, aerosols and particles produced by the fire. A normalised methodology allowing the efficiency of the fire retardants to be compared and their effects on the environment to be determined, will be also realised.

The results of these studies will be used to develop fire spread models, to quantify and compare heat transfer models and, finally to develop a simplified forest fire models which will be used to determine the specifications for a software package for decision assistance and management of the fire risk.

Start date: 1/06/1992

End date: 31/08/1994

Project funding:

Co-ordinatorOrganisation: Commissariat à l'Energie Atomique (CEA)Department: Institut de Protection et de Sûreté Nucléaire, [Table and further information]

DN: MEMO/03/164 Date: /08/2003

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