Firefighter numbers have been cut, when investment—especially in prevention—is key to stemming Europe’s wildfires.
As Europe grappled over the summer with record-breaking heatwaves, devastating wildfires, rainfall, flooding and the ominous shadow of the climate crisis, the need for robust and well-equipped firefighting forces and emergency services was never more pressing. Europe must recognise that reducing firefighter numbers and public funding for fire, forest and water management is a dangerous path, which threatens the safety of our communities and the environment.
For the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU), representing firefighters and first responders, standing up against cuts in fire services is core—yet every summer the work seems to take on even greater import. The blazes are not inevitable acts of nature. Rather, they are proof that, amid global heating, the European Union and its member states are not putting enough effort into land and water management or proactive wildfire and flood prevention.
Firefighter numbers slashed
Nowhere is this more evident than in Greece. A forest blaze just north of Alexandroupoli became the largest wildfire recorded within the EU, destroying over 93,000 hectares of land and taking over 17 days to be brought under control. Tragically, the human toll has been profound, with the loss of 20 lives, including migrants seeking refuge within the scorched expanse. Greek fire-department representatives confirmed that more than 60 firefighters were injured while tackling the fires.
With disasters like this becoming recurrent and the firebelt moving further north every year, it’s hard to fathom deliberately reducing firefighter numbers. Yet recent Eurostat data show this has been happening across much of Europe.
In ten EU member states, the number of firefighters has been slashed despite the escalating climate crisis. Between 2021 and 2022 alone, France lost a staggering 5,446 firefighters, Romania lost 4,250 and Portugal saw a reduction of 2,907. These numbers do not just signify a decrease in personnel: they represent a dangerous shift away from preparedness and an alarming disregard for the challenges that lie ahead.
The severe heatwaves, droughts, floods and wildfires of recent years are not isolated incidents but symptoms of a broader crisis fuelled by climate change. These disasters demand an investment in the resilience of our communities and firefighters are on the frontline of this battle.
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Forest management key
In a world where extreme-weather events are becoming the norm, prevention is key, not merely reacting. Yet Víctor Resco de Dios, professor of forest science at Spain’s University of Lleida, rightly emphasises that preventing ignition ‘shouldn’t be the main focus’. We must delve deeper into forest management, investing in strategies that reduce the availability of fuel for fires.
This entails reducing combustible undergrowth and—controversial as it may sound—strategic tree-cutting. These measures, far from being detrimental, are essential for the preservation of our environment and the safety of our communities.
In an effort to confront the escalating crisis, the EU has taken steps to enhance firefighting capacity: the ‘rescEU’ firefighting air fleet is set to double, providing 28 planes and helicopters to support national firefighters, while a dedicated wildfire-support team is being created within the Emergency Response Coordination Centre. These measures are welcome, but they are reactive and they won’t solve Europe’s firefighting problem. ‘Planes are useful, of course,’ said one firefighter, ‘but if I had to choose, I’d rather have more personnel on the ground.’
The EU has also committed itself to improving wildfire prevention as part of its 2030 Forest Strategy—but legislation to develop an EU-wide forest-observation network has disappeared from the European Commission’s agenda. Yet prevention saves lives.
Arsonists, lightning or other ignition sources are but triggers for the disasters that await in landscapes ripe for devastation. Blaming individuals or external factors shifts the focus away from the systemic challenges at hand.
By investing in our firefighting forces and bolstering public funding for preventive measures, we lay the groundwork for resilient communities which can withstand the rigours of an unpredictable climate. Prevention is also the more economical option: in Spain, the cost to put out a fire is €19,000 per hectare, while the cost of fire-prevention activities is €2,000 per hectare.
Austerity measures should have no place in a climate-conscious Europe. While the EU’s commitment to firefighting equipment and resources is laudable, it must also advocate for policies that prioritise the wellbeing of its citizens and the environment. The wildfires of today are not isolated events: they are signs of a future threatening regions previously untouched in Europe. Extreme rainfall and consequent floods likewise demand stronger adaptation and management of nature.
The choices made today will determine the trajectory of our shared future. The call to protect firefighter resources, maintain public funding and prioritise prevention is not only about the workers’ rights at stake—it reflects a commitment to safeguarding lives, communities and the environment.
Europe must rise to this challenge collectively, recognising the relationship between the wellbeing of its citizens and the health of its natural landscapes. In the face of heatwaves, extreme-weather risks and the threat of further unknown crises, the time for bold and forward-thinking action—for Europe to unite to invest and secure its future in a changing world—is now.