Enhancing European Wildfire Response: Insights from Aerial Firefighting Europe 2023 in Greece

Insights from Aerial Firefighting Europe 2023 in Greece. Discover the key takeaways from the conference, including coordinated firefighting efforts in Europe, strategic adjustments and lessons from the frontlines, challenges of international collaboration in crisis response, advancements in aerial firefighting, and TracPlus's role in enhancing response and safety. Join us in exploring these insights and the path forward in safeguarding our communities.

In a time when climate change is intensifying and wildfire seasons are becoming more unpredictable, the Aerial Firefighting Europe 2023 conference, recently held in Greece, served as a pivotal convergence point for experts, policymakers, and frontline leaders. This gathering was not just timely but necessary, providing a platform for an in-depth exchange of knowledge, strategies, and innovations in wildfire management.

Expert speakers from diverse backgrounds led the discourse, including representatives from the Hellenic Fire Service who provided a comprehensive overview of Aerial Firefighting history in Greece, and experts who discussed the stark realities of the 2023 fire season, marked by unprecedented wildfire behaviour. The event also featured insights into the operational changes in France’s firefighting deployment after a particularly challenging 2022 and a broader look at how the aerial firefighting mission has rapidly expanded on a global scale, stretching resources and demanding innovative solutions.

One prevalent theme was the acknowledgment of the environment's drastic changes, leading to higher temperatures, lower humidity, and increased winds that challenge traditional firefighting methods. Speakers emphasised the necessity of adaptative responses, including the efficient and effective use of retardants as partners to water in combating fires in extreme conditions.

TracPlus was present contributing to the dialogue and demonstrating our latest technological advancements designed to support aerial firefighting operations. Our solutions, especially pertinent in the wake of Greece’s demanding fire season, offer real-time tracking and operational insights, significantly enhancing coordination and response efficiency when it mattered most.

This blog post delves into the key takeaways from the conference, highlighting groundbreaking strategies, TracPlus's integral contributions, and the real-world implications of these advancements for Greece and the global community. Join us in exploring these insights, understanding that while the challenges are formidable, the path forward is one of collaboration, innovation, and shared commitment to safeguarding our communities.

A. Coordinated Firefighting Efforts in Europe

  1. Understanding rescEU:
    • The rescEU initiative is a critical component of the European Union's strategy to collaborate and respond effectively to emergencies, including natural disasters such as wildfires. Established as part of the EU Civil Protection Mechanism, rescEU was created to strengthen the collective ability of the European Union to react to disasters that affect any of its member states. One of the key motivations for establishing rescEU was the recognition that natural and man-made disasters, exacerbated by climate change, are increasing in frequency, complexity, and severity.
    • rescEU represents a new level of shared emergency preparedness and response. Prior to its inception, the EU primarily relied on voluntary contributions from member states to aid in emergencies, which sometimes led to gaps in resources and capabilities. rescEU, however, ensures there is always a reserve of resources available for immediate deployment, such as firefighting planes and helicopters, specially-equipped water-pumping vehicles, and medical evacuation planes. This approach is designed to complement national capacities and is a tangible expression of European solidarity, with the EU providing financial support to ensure these resources are operational and ready for rapid mobilisation.
    • In the context of wildfires, rescEU's assets, including aerial firefighting equipment, are of particular importance. Wildfires often spread rapidly and can exceed the firefighting capacities of the affected country, making regional and international support essential. rescEU enables a coordinated and rapid response, with assets strategically placed to ensure quick deployment to any region in need.
  2. rescEU in Action during the 2023 Fire Season:
    • The 2023 wildfire season in Greece highlighted rescEU's critical role. When Greece activated the EU Civil Protection Mechanism for the second time in the summer, rescEU was central to the emergency response. The mobilisation of 11 firefighting planes, a Blackhawk helicopter, and over 400 firefighters and 60 vehicles from various member states represented the largest rescEU operation in history. These assets were instrumental in combating the wildfires, which were the largest recorded in the EU since the EFFIS began capturing data in 2000.
    • The operation's scale underscores the EU's commitment to collective action and the essential role of rescEU in providing a safety net for member states. The rapid deployment of resources helped contain the fires and demonstrated the effectiveness of having a shared pool of assets on standby. Furthermore, the coordinated response went beyond immediate firefighting efforts, extending to post-disaster support and recovery, including satellite mapping of the affected areas to aid in assessing the damage and planning reconstruction.
  3. The Future of rescEU:
    • The experiences from the 2023 fire season have underscored the importance of rescEU and will likely shape its evolution. As climate change continues to escalate the risk and intensity of wildfires, the EU recognises the need to continuously evaluate and expand rescEU's capabilities. This includes investing in new technologies, enhancing the preparedness of assets, and possibly expanding the types of resources included in the rescEU reserve.
    • Furthermore, there is an ongoing emphasis on prevention and preparedness. The EU promotes initiatives aimed at reducing the risk of disasters, including forest management strategies, public education on fire prevention, and research into the causes of wildfires. These efforts, combined with rescEU's robust response capabilities, represent a comprehensive approach to managing the increasing threat of wildfires in Europe.

B. Strategic Adjustments and Lessons from the Frontlines

  1. Adapting to a New Climate Reality in France:
    • The French approach to wildfire management underwent significant reassessment following the particularly devastating fire season of 2022. It became evident that the traditional wildfire season, previously confined to July and August, had expanded due to the adverse effects of climate change. This shift presented an urgent need to adapt operational strategies to protect communities and natural landscapes throughout an extended risk period.
    • The National Technical Council for Wildfire at the Ministry of Interior in France introduced strategic adjustments in 2023, which were informed by rigorous analyses of previous seasons. These adjustments included enhanced surveillance during non-traditional fire seasons, the pre-deployment of aerial and ground resources in high-risk areas, and intensified training for firefighting personnel to handle the unpredictable and severe nature of modern wildfires.
    • A critical component of the new operational plan was the refined criteria for deploying airborne resources. Recognising that the timely deployment of aerial firefighting assets can significantly influence the containment of wildfires, French authorities optimised their deployment strategies to ensure rapid response, effective resource allocation, and minimal loss of life and property.
  2. Systemic Transformation in Portugal:
    • Portugal's journey since the tragic wildfires of 2017 has been one of profound learning and systemic transformation. The establishment of the Agency for Integrated Rural Fire Management symbolised a nationwide commitment to a more unified, cohesive approach to wildfire management.
    • This transformation was driven by the necessity for a centralised body capable of coordinating the various, previously dispersed firefighting entities and resources across the country. The new agency's mandate extended beyond immediate fire response to encompass preventive strategies, ecological preservation, and the recovery and sustainability of rural areas affected by fires.
    • The 2023 fire season was a testament to the efficacy of these systemic changes. Despite facing severe wildfires, Portugal demonstrated improved response times, greater strategic coordination among firefighting units, and a stronger emphasis on community engagement and education in fire prevention and safety protocols.
  3. Unprecedented Challenges and International Solidarity in Greece:
    • Greece's 2023 fire season pushed the limits of national crisis management and firefighting capabilities. The country confronted extreme fire behaviours, including fast-spreading crown fires, intense heatwaves, and phenomena like fire tornadoes, which were previously rare in the region.
    • The Hellenic Fire Service's National Coordination Center for Operations and Crisis Management was at the forefront of these challenges, orchestrating a response of unprecedented scale and complexity. The coordination of 138 aerial assets from 15 different countries was not only a logistical feat but also a profound example of international solidarity.
    • Among the key lessons learned were the importance of international collaboration, the need for continuous adaptation in crisis response strategies, and the significance of advanced technologies in coordinating multi-national firefighting efforts. The experiences from Greece's fire season are invaluable, contributing to a global repository of knowledge that can influence wildfire management strategies worldwide.

C. Challenges of International Collaboration in Crisis Response:

  • Language Barriers: One of the significant challenges encountered during the multinational response to Greece's wildfires was language diversity. With first responders and support teams from different countries speaking 24 different languages, effective communication became a complex task. This linguistic diversity, while a testament to international solidarity, posed operational challenges. Critical instructions, coordination commands, and status updates had to be meticulously translated and disseminated, increasing the risk of miscommunication or delays in execution. This experience underscores the need for a standardised crisis communication protocol or technology-enabled solutions for real-time translation in future multinational emergency responses.
  • Equipment Interoperability: Another logistical challenge was the issue of equipment interoperability. Firefighting teams from various countries arrived with their gear, some of which had unique specifications, such as hose diameters or tank fittings that were not universally compatible. While teams were able to overcome these challenges using adapters, the situation highlighted the importance of working towards standardised equipment specifications or ensuring the availability of a wide range of adapters and conversion tools in scenarios involving international assistance. This standardisation would streamline operations, reduce delays caused by equipment mismatches, and enhance the overall efficiency of the response effort.
  • Changing Climate and Geographical Risk Profiles: The 2023 fire season also brought to light an emerging challenge: the shifting geography of wildfire risks. Areas in central and northern Greece, including Corfu, which historically were considered low risk for wildfires, experienced significant blazes. This shift indicates that wildfires are no longer a strictly southern European concern. Climate change is altering traditional risk profiles, making wildfires an increasingly central European issue. These changes necessitate a reevaluation of preparedness measures, resource allocation, and risk assessment methodologies across Europe. Preventive measures, such as creating fire breaks, managing forest undergrowth, and implementing stringent fire safety regulations in these new risk areas, are becoming essential.

D. Advancements in Aerial Firefighting

  1. Evolving Nature of Wildfires:
    • Michael Benson of Conair Group, Inc. underscored a critical reality during his presentation: the nature of wildfires has changed. The fires we face today are more intense and unpredictable, primarily due to climate change and varying environmental factors. This evolution demands a corresponding transformation in our firefighting strategies. For instance, while water has been a traditional tool in combating fires, its effectiveness against large-scale forest fires is limited. Benson highlighted a startling fact: a standard drop of 3,000 litres of water can counteract approximately 7 million BTUs of heat, but a hectare of wildfire generates a staggering 247 million BTUs. This disparity illustrates that water alone is insufficient in battling expansive forest fires from the air.
  2. The Science of Firefighting:
    • Combating wildfires involves a complex understanding of combustion. A fire needs heat, fuel, and oxygen to sustain itself. Traditional firefighting methods, such as dousing with water, work by separating the fire from its fuel source or by cooling the fuel to a temperature that the fire can no longer sustain, thereby starving it of oxygen. However, when we're up against wildfires of monumental scales, these conventional methods fall short. That's where fire retardants, specifically long-term retardants like PHOS-CHEK, become indispensable.
  3. Role of Fire Retardants in Aerial Firefighting:
    • PHOS-CHEK and other fire retardants play a crucial role in modern aerial firefighting. Composed of ammonium polyphosphate, water, fertiliser-type salts, a colouring agent, corrosion inhibitors, and flow conditioners, these retardants can adhere to vegetation and effectively remain active for months unless washed away by rain. They're not typically applied directly to the fire. Instead, they are used to establish a containment perimeter, creating a chemical firebreak that deprives the fire of fuel.
    • These retardants function in three primary ways: they absorb heat, coat the surface to create a barrier between the fuel and oxygen, and dilute the air near the fire. By altering the fuel's chemical composition, retardants prevent it from supporting the flaming or glowing combustion processes, thereby slowing or even halting the spread of the fire. The distinctive red colour of these retardants serves a practical purpose, helping pilots and ground crews identify treated areas. However, this coloration is not permanent; it fades after a few days of sunlight exposure and eventually disappears entirely.

E. TracPlus's Role in Enhancing Response and Safety

  1. Supporting Frontline Excellence:
    • TracPlus is proud to stand alongside Erickson Inc, known for their formidable Skycrane helicopters, in their remarkable efforts during Greece's challenging wildfire season. Our role is one of support, providing Erickson Inc with advanced tracking and communication systems that contribute to the efficient management of their aerial firefighting operations. It's about enabling effectiveness, not directing it.
  2. Facilitating Informed Decision-Making:
    • During the 2023 fire season, Erickson Inc's fleet, consisting of 10 aircraft, undertook over 600 flights, resulting in more than 12,000 water drops — that's over 41 million litres of water delivered to strategic locations across the wildfire fronts. TracPlus's technology played a role in these operations by providing reliable data, helping Erickson Inc's team understand their operational impact and make informed decisions in real-time.
  3. Enhancing Operational Insights:
    • With an average of 9 drops per hour and over 30,000 litres dropped per hour, the scale of Erickson Inc's operations is undeniably impressive. TracPlus's systems offer valuable insights into these statistics, helping the team assess the efficiency of their operations.

The Aerial Firefighting Europe 2023 conference has underscored the importance of collective wisdom, technological advancement, and strategic collaboration in addressing the growing challenge of wildfires, a reality that regions like Greece know all too well.

TracPlus plays a quiet yet crucial role in this sector. Our real-time tracking technology and operational insights are fundamental components that support the efficiency and safety of aerial firefighting teams. During Greece's recent challenging wildfire season, TracPlus's solutions were there, facilitating informed decision-making and effective communication among teams, proving instrumental in the nation's firefighting efforts.

Our commitment, however, extends beyond providing technology. TracPlus believes in actively engaging with the communities we serve. This engagement takes the form of workshops, training sessions, and open channels of communication, ensuring continuous learning and improvement are achievable for everyone involved.

The complexity of wildfire scenarios is growing, but so is our understanding and ability to combat these challenges. Each season provides new data, experiences, and lessons that feed into a global knowledge base, contributing to a more prepared and informed response network. TracPlus is honoured to contribute to this learning process, offering not just service but a commitment to stand with the firefighting community in Greece and around the world.

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