Mediterranean fires highlight the need for international solutions
Thousands of people across Italy, Greece, Turkey and Lebanon flee their homes as historic forest fires whip the area. This is climate change in its manic phase. And it’s getting worse and worse.
The UN sweep climate report, released on Monday, warns that Earth will cross a critical threshold of 1.5o Temperature threshold C by 2030, ten years before the previous estimate. This means more frequent and intense weather events across the world.
Extreme weather events are “stress multipliers”, increasing the pressure on already strained systems: from the natural (fires, floods, disrupted food chains) to the economic (tourism, agriculture), to politics. Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, for his part, faces huge backlash of citizens due to its (mismanagement) of the country’s worst fires amid an economic downturn and the fragile recovery from Covid.
Of North America from the South, from Europe to Siberia, from Africa to Australia, larger regions are threatened by “fires worthy of a horror film”. Human-made emissions from hydrocarbon extraction and industrial processes make the earth’s life cycles more erratic and destructive. These extreme weather events are indifferent to sovereign borders. This means – for better or for worse – that climate change presents an opportunity for nation states to unite to attack a common enemy. However, capacities to tackle the causes and effects of climate change vary considerably.
The disparity in preparedness is even more apparent when comparing Greek and Turkish responses to forest fires in the Mediterranean. Greece operates 39 firefighting aircraft with additional resources from the EU and Russia. At the same time, Turkey admitted that none of their three firefighting planes is in flight due to lack of maintenance, with only a handful of planes mobilized by friendly countries, including Russia and Iran, currently operational.
As critical infrastructure, such as power grid systems, is in increasing danger, a collective response is being formed thanks to the commitment of resources from neighboring countries. Additional planes and crews were sent earlier from Ukraine, Russia, Azerbaijan and Iran, while Greek aid was rejected, prompting a social media reaction on accepting help.
There is a motive behind the policy of supporting the firefighting: Under the Islamist AKP party, Turkey has long sought to strengthen its relations with non-EU countries while distancing itself of the West. This most prominently includes Russia, with support consisting of a handful of Beriev 200 amphibious aircraft and Ilyushin-76 heavy lift aircraft equipped with a temporary 11,000-gallon tank.
The Beriev 200 is widely regarded as the best fixed-wing aircraft for firefighting, designed to fly up to 1,300 meters of lake surface at 128 mph, pick up 3,100 gallons of water in 14 seconds. It is the only amphibious jet airframe in the world, combining the large water and fuel capacity of a stationary aircraft with the in situ filling capacity of helicopters.
These planes have proven their worth from the forests of Siberia to Israel, and are currently used in Greece. With the removal of the only fire-fighting cell of the Boeing 747, the US government is forced to find an alternative for its large fixed-wing firefighting tankers. The current funding scheme is a “call when” basis where the private owner, Global Supertanker Services, is responsible for all costs without guaranteed income. In April 2021, GSS shut down and sold its 747 to be converted into a cargo plane, which is in high demand during the pandemic.
As the climate gets hotter, firefighting planes are invaluable. Back in Turkey, despite the AKP’s foreign policy pivot towards non-EU countries, the scale of the wildfires forced them to accept aid from EU countries, including the resources of Spain and Croatia. These resources have been mobilized through the European Union’s civil protection mechanism. When Sweden experienced unprecedented forest fires in 2018, the greater aerial mobilization to date, composed of 360 people, 7 planes, 6 helicopters and 67 vehicles, and a total transport cost estimated at 1.15 million euros.
Civil protection organizations, equipment and funding are increasingly important around the world. A secondary advantage of these cooperative systems is the possibility of evaluating the best approaches and equipment for fighting fires.
One of the leading innovators in firefighting aviation is Canada Coulson Aviation Inc. They have spent decades and millions of dollars developing the ability to provide rapid response aerial fire protection. Their services are employed by countries around the world, costing customers $ 8,000 an hour to operate one of their Chinook helicopters.
On July 9, only one Chinook fell 80,000 gallons of water in 32 drops from 2:30 a.m. to 4:00 a.m. on the Tuna Fire in Malibu, California. The total value of the saved property remains to be determined.
The advantage of Coulson’s approach is their combined efforts to provide on-site control helicopters as well as water transport craft. They are also the only private team to fly both helicopters and larger fixed-wing planes. These larger craft are at a disadvantage as they typically have to return to an airport to refuel and reload water. Helicopters are able to use smaller bodies of water to replenish their reserves on the spot.
The United States Federal Fleet is maintained by the US Forest Service and some by the US Air Force. Without companies like GSS or Coulson Aviation Inc., the United States does not have adequate capacity for firefighting aircraft. As the risk of fire continues to increase, creating a new civil protection system is a top priority. Whether international, regional or private, fixed-wing aircraft are an essential rapid response tool in global firefighting, a tool the United States does not take seriously.
Energy, ingenuity and investment in global cooperation must increase for an effective defense against forest fires to be put in place. Joint action here – if effective – can serve as a model for addressing future shared climate challenges.
With the help of Sean Moroney