‘rescEU’: A European fleet to fight forest fires

Pilots of the Spanish Air Force in front of a "Canadair" fire-fighting plane [Doris Pundy]

More than 200 people were killed in forest fires across Europe in 2017 while more than 100 perished in flames last summer. This year, a new EU-backed fleet of fire-fighting planes is getting ready to prevent further disasters.

Seven fire-fighting aircraft and six helicopters – this is how the so-called “rescEU” fleet looks like at the moment. These first assets were made available by six EU member states  to fight forest fires. And they can be mobilised at any moment, at the request of European or foreign countries.

Spain contributes two so-called “Canadairs”, fire-fighting aircraft of the largest and most effective category. They hold over 6,000 litres of water and can refill their tanks in just ten seconds.

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These “Canadairs” are waiting for their next mission at the Torrejón air base outside Madrid. Sunburned yellow grass lines the runways. The weather forecast for the next few days predicts temperatures of up to 40 degrees in the shade – ideal conditions for forest fires.

The Spanish Air Force knows them well. Last year their pilots flew over 200 missions just with the country’s 21 “Canadairs” planes. Spain has a total of 260 larger and smaller fire-fighting planes. Other, less well-equipped countries will now be able to benefit more quickly and efficiently from this expertise.

Climate change fuels forest fires

“We have recently seen forest fires rage throughout Europe, from north to south, from east to west. And fires don’t respect borders,” said Christos Stylianides, EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management, who was speaking at the Torrejón air base for the official launch of “rescEU”.

Exacerbated by climate change, forest fires destroy more land each year. And the fire season tends to get longer, stretching from May to October, which are now also considered high-risk months.

A turning point was reached in October 2017 when large-scale fires broke out in the north of Portugal. The Portuguese government asked other EU member states for help to battle the blaze. But it was also unusually hot in neighbouring countries and no country dared lending their equipment. The consequences were dire: 45 people died in the flames in Portugal within a few days.

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With “rescEU” such a scenario will never happen again, said Commissioner Stylianides. In the coming years, the fleet is to be further expanded and the equipment distributed throughout Europe in the best possible way.

The initiative helps Europe “to be better prepared and better equipped to tackle the intensity and complexity of today’s natural disasters due to climate change,” said the Commissioner.

RescEU: binding instead of voluntary

The EU’s Civil Protection Mechanism, through which all countries worldwide can request assistance from European countries to combat disasters, has been in place since 2001. Until now, member states could voluntarily provide assets and personnel in response to such calls.

But because of this, some requests remain unanswered. In 2017, there were no responses to six out of 17 emergency calls.

Under the revised emergency mechanism “rescEU”, EU and third countries in distress can permanently access fire-fighting planes, helicopters and other equipment. This is meant to prevent further disaster such as the October 2017 fires in Portugal.

In order to avoid bottlenecks in “rescEU” participating countries, the EU Commission has committed to finance additional equipment. The EU executive said it will contribute up to 90% of the acquisition costs for new helicopters and aircraft as well as their maintenance. The EU will also pay 75% of the operational and transport costs. Next year, the Commission expects detailed purchasing plans from member states.

The money will come from the EU budget. €136 million per year have been earmarked for this purpose until 2020, a sum that will rise to €200 million annually under the Commission’s plan. A “Canadair” aircraft costs between €30 and €40 million.

Any assets co-financed by the EU Commission will then be part of the “rescEU” fleet and must be made available to other states in emergency. The fleet should be complete by 2025. Ideally, it will then include not only fire-fighting gear but also equipment for medical emergencies and chemical or nuclear disasters.

The European Commission is dependent on the goodwill of the member states for the expansion of the new fleet. It cannot acquire its own assets, as civil protection is the responsibility of national governments. The financing offered is therefore meant as an incentive.

Joint fire-fighting as tangible solidarity

“I strongly believe that with ‘rescEU’ we can increase our European capacity through national capacities to have a truly efficient, effective and common response to natural disasters, especially forest fires,” Commissioner Stylianides told EURACTIV in an interview.

In the future, three to four operational hubs could be set up across Europe. The Commissioner no longer sees any risk that the often lacking European solidarity will stand in the way of a stronger joint civil protection force.

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“Frankly speaking, when we made a first round to persuade our member states of the necessity of upgrading the previous system, sometimes we saw a sort of reluctance,” Stylianides admitted.

But the large fires last August in Sweden were a “turning point,” he said. Member states understood that forest fires were no longer a problem of the south. “They are a problem everywhere.”

Whether “rescEU’ will be a shining example of effective EU cooperation remains to be seen. A new Commission will take office in the autumn and it is not clear yet who will be responsible for crisis management or whether Stylianides will continue.

In addition, the financing of the initiative after 2020 still has to be decided by member states and the European Parliament. Some officials are no so optimistic that the new EU civil protection force will actually receive the €200 million per year requested by the Commission.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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