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More uncontrollable wildfires in the Netherlands with greater impact on society

23 January 2023
In future, larger areas of the Netherlands will face an increase in wildfires, which may also increase in intensity. These are the findings of a consortium of experts from the Netherlands Institute for Public Safety (NIPV), the Royal Dutch Meteorological Institute (KNMI), Wageningen University & Research, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and Deltares.

All findings are published today in a Dutch-language report entitled Natuurbrandsignaal 2023. “As heatwaves and periods of drought become more common, the risk of serious wildfires is also on the rise here in the Netherlands. In a densely populated country like ours, a wildfire can have a major impact on society. Our findings show how urgently we need to address this issue,” says VU earth scientist Sander Veraverbeke, who contributed to the report as a wildfire expert.

More wildfires, greater intensity
The researchers conclude that the nature of wildfires in the Netherlands is changing. “Wildfires are increasing in intensity to the extent that they can no longer be extinguished and only stop when they run out of fuel,” says researcher and project leader Hans Hazebroek of the NIPV. “People will have to be evacuated more often, the direct and indirect damage will be greater, vital infrastructure will be disrupted and irreparable damage to flora and fauna will be a more frequent occurrence. In addition, these fires will represent a greater threat to human health.”

Our weather has become warmer, drier and sunnier in recent decades, and current forecasts suggest that this trend will continue, with the average lowest groundwater level also falling in parts of the Netherlands. This often results in vegetation becoming more flammable and leads to an increase in the number of fire-prone days. Climatic trends may also increase wildfire intensity and make these blazes increasingly difficult to fight using existing methods.

Recommendations
The researchers recommend that preventing and fighting wildfires should become a structural part of the fire-fighting system, and that the risk of wildfires should be taken into account when planning the Dutch landscape. They go on to argue that we need to raise our level of expertise to gain a deeper and more quantitative understanding of wildfire risk. “In addition, it’s important to consider the area-based and multi-stakeholder approach recommended in the report. A fire in a nature reserve never exists in isolation. It is linked to water management and to agricultural, recreational and other activities in the surrounding landscape,” says VU heritage expert Linde Egberts, another member of the expert team behind this report.

The physical aspects of fire risk are clearly in focus, but how people experience fire is also a factor. In her own research, Egberts questions the social and cultural aspects of the growing risk of fire: “In the past, residents of forest and moorland areas were more accustomed to fire and actively used it to manage the landscape. With the rise of large-scale forestry and conservation, people have come to view fire as a greater threat. There are still lessons embedded in landscape heritage that can be useful in dealing with the changing circumstances we face today.” Some of the measures recommended in the report also hark back to past management practices, such as deploying fire as a managed intervention and the raising of groundwater levels.