Fires in the Czech Republic: why do they happen, how many will occur, and how can we prevent them?Published: Jul 20, 2023 Reading time: 8 minutes
Although the Czech Republic is not inherently affected by fires, the risk increases significantly in hot summers. And due to climate change, summers will become increasingly hot. We can prevent fires, catch them early and, above all, stop them from starting. Healthy forests, water in the landscape, and an awareness of our environment and others who use it will help.
Every summer, many places around the world suffer from fire. And under the influence of climate change, fires are expected to become more frequent, longer, and more severe, threatening nature and human well-being.
Why are fires increasing?
The Czech Republic has been and still is lagging behind in frequency compared to the Mediterranean. Yet, the risk is increasing due to climate change. The Czech landscape is drying rapidly due to decades of poor management and intensification of climate change. Furthermore, forests are declining due to poor species composition.
It is easy to guess that a degraded, dry forest is more likely to burn. So what is needed is prudence and caution and our willingness to reshape the landscape to better withstand fires.
Ideal for fire: climate change and deeping drought
Climate change is causing an energy imbalance in the upper atmosphere. At first glance, it seems insignificant (about +0.5 W per m²), but in sum, it is the energy equivalent of roughly four nuclear bombs exploding every second . Thus, more energy accumulates in our planetary systems - the atmosphere, hydrosphere and cryosphere - than leaves them. This is reflected, among other things, in rising global temperatures, melting glaciers, and more intense weather events. This is most pronounced in the subpolar belt, where every cubic metre of air, water and topsoil is warming up to 4 °C on average. To a lesser extent, these changes are happening in our country, where the average temperature has risen by about 0.3 °C per decade. This accumulated energy causes several physical processes in the environment; the most important for the formation of fires is evaporation.
As climate change progresses, more and more water will evaporate. The risks of fires increase steeply at temperatures above 35 °C. This summer has been very hot and dry, with some of the worst weather conditions we have seen so far. As we plunge into climate uncertainty, firefighting data shows the number of fires is increasing.
We can't say that conditions will get worse with each passing year. There will be worse years and better years. But until the planet reaches energy equilibrium, the trend will inevitably point in the wrong direction.
Spruce forests in decline
Whether global climate change can be halted in the foreseeable future is a question we cannot yet answer. We can already mitigate its effects with sensible adaptation measures. In the Czech Republic, for example, we need to change the species composition of forests. However, this will take years.
In our country, spruce stands are justified only in the upper parts of the border mountains. Nevertheless, in the past, spruce forests, in particular, were planted for their rapid growth and high density per hectare, especially in the early days of the Czech industry (e.g. glassmaking), which depended on wood from forests. Under the previous regime, the process was completed - what was done at the small scale was dramatically scaled up, and our country was filled with large swathes of spruce forests.
Because of climate change, we have more extreme wind events. When a hurricane hits a forest wall after a section of forest has been bare, the shallow roots of the trees are pretty easily uprooted, and the forest cover falls to the ground. In addition, optimal conditions for spruce stands will still be farther north. The species composition of Czech forests must change whether we want it to or not. And we can help accelerate the process.
Historically, oak-hickory and oak-beech forests grew naturally here and are justified for today's conditions. They are now one of the primary keys to adapting to climate change.
What can we do about fires?
It should also be added that, in our conditions, the solution to fires is not to cut strips through the forests, as is the case, for example, in the United States or Australia. In Bohemian Switzerland, the fire jumped over about forty metres of such a strip. Small burning pieces of material can travel up to kilometres in the air. In turn, it will help to maintain the accessibility of firefighting equipment to forests and a reasonable network of reporting points, however much their use is decreasing in the age of GPS in smartphones.
Restore wetlands and ponds reduces fires, let's do it!
Landscape adaptation must go further than diversified forestry. Sensible water-retaining measures have a major cooling effect on the landscape. And the extra moisture doesn't burn. The restoration of wetlands, the creation of ponds, the meandering of formerly straightened streams, and the planting of copses in the middle of sun-warmed meadows are highly desirable.
Several governmental efforts and NGOs have already responded to this need in the Czech Republic. Landscapes are being mapped, regeneration plans are drawn up, and planting, digging, and meandering works are undertaken. We, People in Need, have recently launched the project LIFE WILL - Water in Landscape and Soil, which will introduce nature-based adaptation measures in three pilot sites with the help of local people and using local resources. If the project proves successful, it may be implemented in other Czech Republic and Slovakia locations.
If we do not treat our landscape quickly and extensively, it will deteriorate, and we will lose its unique beauty.
There is increasing talk of so-called win-win measures. These work on two levels - cooling and adaptation. White asphalt, green or whitewashed roofs, insulation, and good shading ensure better thermal comfort for people in their homes. They also have mitigating effects because less energy is accumulated in the planetary system.
But not building near the forest will help most against dwelling fires. Even fire detectors won't help when forest cover ignites near a house.
Sources of useful informations are increasing, and infrastructure is improving
Today, we are quickly and extensively informed about the risks of fire outbreaks. For example, the Czech Hydrometeorological Office warns the Czech population using a system of information alerts.
The Global Change Research Institute of the CAS - CzechGlobe is promoting the Clim4Cast project. This project aims to improve forecasts of extreme weather events in Central Europe, i.e. droughts, heatwaves and fires. The project is a previously missing tool for multi-event forecasting of extreme weather events. It is to be developed and integrated into the weather forecasting systems of the existing national drought monitoring platforms of the seven countries involved.
This should be associated with rapid reporting, which is why the IRS will need to be improved. Moreover, for decades Czech firefighters have specialised in fighting settlements, as vegetation fires were not so common. Today, however, this is a phenomenon to which we will have to adapt, including equipment and technology. When the Bohemian Switzerland fire broke out last summer, our firefighters had to borrow specialised equipment from abroad.
CENIA proposes to strengthen the reporting service to identify fires when they are manageable. The Czech Republic is densely populated, so we have the advantage that someone nearby at the time of a fire will notice. Drones or satellite systems could replace the former airborne reporting service. In particular, using data from the new generation of geostationary satellites (METEOSAT, EUMETSAT) could be effective. They scan in the infrared spectrum every 5-10 minutes and will be able to detect fires up to 30 metres in size from next year.
Let's be observant, cautious and above all, considerate
The foundation of the relevant infrastructure is also the trusty old fire tanks, which are available to firefighters in almost every municipality and must be filled appropriately. But there is no doubt that the simple awareness and activity of the people in the vicinity also benefit the cause.
People must be educated and prepared for the increasing and intensifying risks as climate change progresses. People are often unable to adequately assess the risk underestimate it, and so fires often occur.
Do not believe that we control the situation when we play with fire.
People in Need is preparing for an increased number of natural disasters in the future. Immediate humanitarian aid in the immediate aftermath of disasters is essential. However, for the municipalities affected and us, it is only the beginning of a recovery process that will take many years or even decades. In the future, we intend to prevent problems, for example, by establishing an adequately staffed task force during the humanitarian phase. This will take over the long-term coordination of reconstruction throughout the affected area after the humanitarian phase.
To work in the landscape after natural disasters have struck and to prevent drought and land degradation, we established a climate team under the leadership of Magdalena Davis. It coordinates landscape restoration in the "tornado" region of South Moravia and in the heavily farmed landscape around the villages of Němčice and Velvary.