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Climate Adaptation

Europe’s New Trick Against Wildfires: Let It Burn

Many countries are protecting forests by encouraging proper management and letting smaller fires burn.

Residents watch a wildfire in the town of Rafina, near Athens, Greece in July 2018. Mediterranean nations have spent around 200 billion euros in the past two decades to build up some of the world’s largest firefighting forces. 

Residents watch a wildfire in the town of Rafina, near Athens, Greece in July 2018. Mediterranean nations have spent around 200 billion euros in the past two decades to build up some of the world’s largest firefighting forces. 

Photographer: Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP via Getty Images

Climate change is fueling megafires that can’t be extinguished with helicopters and fire trucks, so Europe’s most fire-prone region has come up with new ways to protect forests. In many parts of the continent, countries are letting smaller fires burn, using historic data to model future fire behavior and offering subsidies to encourage land owners and people living close to forests to manage them properly. Over the long term, the goal is to turn forest management into a profitable activity that can also revive rural economies.

“There are a number of different tools and the secret is combining all that’s available,” said Alexander Held, a wildfire expert at the European Forest Institute, a research center set up by European Union members.