Dr John Wardman

Chief Commercial Officer

Two words aptly describe the 2022 European summer: hot and dry. So hot that 2022 saw a new record high temperature for the UK – Coningsby, Lincolnshire reached 40.3°C on the 28th of July, shattering the previous 2019 record of 38.7°C. In fact, the temperature over the entirety of Europe between June – August 2022 was the highest on record[1]. Persistent lack of precipitation combined with the heatwaves from May onwards also led to extreme drought across Europe[2]. No surprise then that by July the stage was set for extreme fire danger. 

The ECMWF’s Fire Weather Index provides fire danger forecasts for Europe, and I took a snapshot of the UK forecast for 28 July 2022 (the same day we had the record high in the UK, see below). Most of southern England was under either high or very high fire danger. Not something that the UK is accustomed to. As the day wore on, an unusually high number of fires began breaking out across England, including a ~40 hectare grassland fire which destroyed several structures in Wennington.

Fire danger forecast for the UK on 28 July 2022 from the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF).

The 6th Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC AR6) states: “Projections of increased fire weather in a warmer climate are widespread and may drive increased fire frequency and severity in several regions…”The conditions observed last summer were direct evidence that hot and dry weather increases the probability of fire ignition and spread. To explore this correlation, I looked at statistics from the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS) for both European Union (EU) and non-EU countries. The EEFIS has been mapping fires ≥30 hectares since the late 1990s, and below is a brief summary of what I found.

Key Findings
800,000 hectares (8,000 km2) burnt in 2022 in the European Union, two and a half times the annual average of the previous 15 years. Of the 38 EU or non-EU countries covered by EEFIS (not including Ukraine which, due to the ongoing conflict, makes accurate fire detection a challenge), two-thirds experienced higher burned area in 2022 over the 2006-2021 average. Similarly, 76% of the EEFIS nations experienced a higher number of fires relative to the 2006-2021 average. In short: it was a highly active and above-average year for wildfires across Europe. 

Digging a bit deeper, I took a sub sample of data from countries which made fire media headlines in 2022: United Kingdom (UK), France (FR) and Germany (GE).  I also selected Greece (GR), Portugal (PT) and Spain (SP) for a comparative analysis of the last 10 years of fire activity as they are countries which typically experience a high proportion of the total fires in Europe in any given year. The below tables show the 2022 values compared with the 10-year average (2011-2021), and the % column shows the percent increase or decrease in fire activity relative to that average. Blue cells indicate a reduction on the 10-year average while red cells signal an increase.

Number of fires and burned area statistics for a select number of countries.

Plots for each of the selected countries showing the annual number of fires and total burned area for each of the countries between 2008-2022 are shown below, with the 10-year burned area and number of fires averages (2011-2021) shown as blue and orange lines, respectively. A few interesting points:
  • France, Spain, Germany experienced their highest burned area totals since 2008 (with >400% increases above the 10-year average);
  • All countries experienced higher than average fire occurrence, where the UK and Spain saw the highest number of fires since 2008;
  • In contrast to the other sub-sampled nations (and the rest of Europe for that matter), usually top-ranking fire countries Greece and Portugal experienced a lower than average burned area year in 2022.

Annual fire activity in terms of number of fires (orange line) and burned area (blue bars, 2022 in red) for a select number of European countries between 2008-2022. Ten-year averages of fire numbers and burned area are indicated by orange and blue lines, respectively. Data from the EFFIS.

Summing Up
2022 saw above average fire activity across Europe in terms of total number of fires and burned area. A series of intense, record-breaking heat waves and prolonged drought across the continent created optimal conditions for wildfire ignition and spread. These conditions demonstrate the plausibility of more frequent and intense wildfires under a warming climate. 

However, statistically speaking, the above plots suggest that it wasn't an unprecedented and/or apocalyptic fire year, as the media seemed quick to assume. For example, the UK experienced a more active fire year in 2019 than it did in 2022 in terms of burned area, and last summer Portugal saw but a fraction of the number of fires and burned area which occurred in 2017. Despite arguably being ‘as bad as it gets’, the severe fire weather conditions which gripped Europe in 2022 [thankfully] did not lead to more losses to human life or property than in previous years[3]. 

Climate change is real and its impact on the severity and frequency of climate-linked perils such as wildfire are starting to emerge. Keeping an eye on key hazard indicators rather than media headlines will go a long way towards understanding its effects on exposed populations.