Europe Cuts Back on Firefighters Even as Blazes Ravage Continent

Most EU nations pared their army of firefighters despite extreme weather becoming more frequent and intense.

(Bloomberg) — Most countries in Europe are paring their army of firefighters even as the continent battles increasingly intense heat waves that have already stoked wildfires in Greece and Portugal this summer.

European Union member states saw the number of firefighters drop by 1.5% in 2022 to less than 360,000 compared to the year before, according to a statement Tuesday from the European Trade Union Confederation, or ETUC, citing Eurostat data. Slovakia, Bulgaria and Portugal saw the biggest percentage drops year-on-year, while France cut the highest number of these professionals. 

The only notable exceptions that actually bolstered their firefighting forces were Spain, Italy and Greece — countries that have been on the frontlines of devastating heatwaves and wildfires in the past couple of months.Greece expanded its fire brigade by almost 60% in 2022, which would have helped battle the blazes last month that forced evacuation of thousands of people from the Rhodes island. The country plans to recruit 500 new fire fighters, according to Vasilis Kikilias, Greece’s minister of climate crisis and civil protection.Read More:  Greek Islands Burn as Italy Nears Record Europe TemperatureThe statistics add to concerns that most parts of Europe are leaving themselves vulnerable to a growing risk of fires as extreme weather events lash across the continent. While the planet rapidly warms — it already saw the hottest June and July on records — countries are caught between tackling climate change in the long term and battling inflation plus economic slowdown in the shorter term, which is squeezing government budgets.Trade unions worry that macroeconomic compulsions could lead to further cutbacks. The ETUC estimates that EU deficit rules mean that 14 member states would have to cut their spending by a minimum of €45 billion ($49 billion) next year.

“Cutting the number of firefighters in the midst of a climate crisis is a recipe for disaster,” Esther Lynch, ETUC’s general secretary said in the statement. “I’m concerned more cuts could be on their way if the EU reintroduces austerity rules next year.”

Read More:   Wildfires Burn Swathes of Portugal as Heat Intensifies Across Iberia

As of Tuesday, around 3,000 firefighters were tackling wildfires across Portugal after more than 1,000 people fled a blaze in the southern part of the country.Fossil fuel emissions are driving global warming, with temperatures topping 40C (104F) across parts of Portugal and Spain. Italy last month saw an unprecedented heat wave in Sardinia as temperatures nearly touched 46C and led to heatstroke deaths. Wildfires in Canada have already charred more than 25 million acres this summer — roughly the size of Iceland. The EU member nations are not the only ones affected by fewer provisions for tackling blazes. The UK had 21% fewer firefighters as of March last year than it did 10 years ago. Central funding for fire and rescue services in England fell by almost a quarter over the last decade in money terms, according to the Fire Brigades Union.

Read more: Britain Hasn’t Braced Up Despite 2022’s Record Wildfire Season

“All countries should be investing in their fire services and other public services to meet the increased burden that will be put on them by climate change,” Lynch said. “But it’s clear from these figures that investment is already insufficient.”

(Updates with spending cuts estimate next year in sixth paragraph.)

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