The number of forest fires in Germany is steadily increasing. The effects of climate change are not only reflected in an increased frequency of fires, but also in an increasing fire severity. You can find out which areas are particularly affected here.

Forest fires are a consequence of climate change. The number of forest fires worldwide has just increased enormously – a prime example of this are the fires in Australia in 2019/20 and the regular major fires in California. In February, the United Nations issued a warning regarding the increase in forest fires.

And the risk of forest fires is also increasing in Germany. Because in addition to global warming, changes in land use will also mean that forest fires will increase enormously in other parts of the world in the future and cause extreme damage.

Experts are already recording an increased frequency and intensity of forest fires in Germany. According to the Federal Environment Agency, the fires in Germany in 2019 covered a total area of ​​over 2,700 hectares – the largest total area in 27 years.

According to forest fire statistics from the Federal Office for Agriculture and Food, coniferous forests burn particularly frequently – especially in Brandenburg, Lower Saxony and Saxony. Forests are currently burning again in Brandenburg: since the beginning of the season, 128 fires (as of May 20, 2022, dpa) have been registered in forest areas.

According to fire ecologist Alexander Held, the following regions are particularly affected:

In an interview with the editorial network Germany (RND), he explains why the fires in eastern Germany are increasing. “We hardly had any rain in March,” says Held.

In addition, there have always been regions of severe drought in Lower Saxony and Brandenburg – due to the dry weather in summer and the sandy soil in which hardly any water can be stored. Here, the drought extends up to 1.80 meters deep into the ground. The increased dying of spruces in the Harz also increases the likelihood of fire: “The sun is now beating down on the open areas. What grows back there is more likely to catch fire,” says the expert.

Human intervention in the forest also contributes to the increased risk of fire. “For years we have mainly planted pine trees, with grass and heather growing underneath. This is unfavorable. A richly structured mixed forest with different tree species that are also of different ages would be better.” In mixed forests, there is less wind, water is stored better and biomass is significantly less combustible than in pine forests, explains Held.

If the drought is there, many factors can trigger a fire. In addition to direct sunlight, arsonists are the main cause in this country. Most of the time, the fires are caused by carelessness, according to Held. “Forestry work is a big issue, sparks from chainsaws are a problem, for example. Of course, even a discarded cigarette can start a fire. But that rarely happens.” Beech and oak trees in particular have only a few adaptation mechanisms against fire – even a low-intensity fire can cause major damage.

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The consequences of the forest fires are precarious. As the “Tagesschau” reports, the smoke is not only harmful to health and pollutes water, the fires are also destroying the habitat of numerous species. In addition, the fires increase climate change by destroying the forests and thus essential CO2 stores. Almost three billion mammals, reptiles, birds and amphibians were killed or injured in the 2019/20 wildfires in Australia. Global warming must be stopped in order to stem the further destruction of the environment caused by phenomena such as forest fires.

Held also sees climate change as a significant cause of extreme weather conditions such as long periods of drought. These in turn encourage fires in regions where fires have never occurred before. “Climate change will worsen. It is to be expected that fires will break out in more and more places and cause damage over the next few decades. “There will be more and more years with extreme conditions, in which ten times as many fires break out as in an average year.

But what is the probability of fire this year? Held fears an above-average number of forest fires – also here in Germany. It is striking that there are already many fires with a high warning level.

As the expert explains, the fire season typically runs from March to May, when the sun hits winter-arid vegetation, and during the dry spells of July and August. However, since the vegetation is late greening this year due to the drought, forest areas are more susceptible to fires.

The increasing number of forest fires should not be taken lightly – after all, they affect us all. “A few hectares of fire are enough to cause nearby residential buildings, the highway and the train route to be closed and evacuated,” says the expert. The long-term effects on ecosystems are hard to imagine.

But what about forest fire prevention? According to Held, numerous working groups have now been formed at the fire brigades, the state ministries and the Ministry of the Interior. There are also crisis meetings in forestry. However, implementation fails. “There are many construction sites,” explains Held. “A good example of this is the conversion of forests. We’ve been talking about this for over 30 years. However, there is obviously no progress on the surface. Otherwise we would not be struggling with such fires at the moment.”

In order to achieve a concrete implementation of preventive measures, national strategies and a supra-regional coordination office are needed that bring together and advise all actors involved. So far, however, the responsibilities for forest fire prevention in Germany have not even been clearly defined.

“Of course you can’t eliminate every fire directly or prevent it,” says Held. However, the fire expert emphasizes the importance of preparation for possible major fire situations. We should network with countries like Spain and Portugal – “They now know a little better how to deal with major fires.”