Opinion: 'Sweden's wildfires are everyone's business'

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Opinion: 'Sweden's wildfires are everyone's business'
It is time to talk seriously about the wildfires, writes Per Axbom. Photo: Maja Suslin/TT & Private

The world is witnessing more than just a national emergency, writes Per Axbom.


Of more than 30 wildfires in Sweden, several are not yet under control and four cannot be put out without a radical weather change. Joining up to help local firefighters and volunteers over the past week we have seen Norway, Italy, France, Germany, Lithuania, Poland, Denmark and Portugal. With the amount of EU and bilateral support needed, the magnitude of these fires proves bigger than anything we've seen in over a century. The world is witnessing more than just a national emergency.

With only weeks to a general election, not only are forests burning, but the country is ablaze with political blame games and disinformation. The government should have invested in water bombing planes, people say; happily ignoring that the international planes arrive as part of a civil protection mechanism that Sweden is already a part of. In fact, the Italian planes assisted Sweden already in June and nobody uttered a word of criticism. In an act of disinformation, EU critics are claiming that Poland's assistance has nothing to do with the EU, though it is also part of the response managed by the Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC).

READ MORE: The latest on Sweden's historic wildfires

I worry that these petty arguments make us lose track of the bigger picture. The fires are huge, unlike anything witnessed by anyone alive in Sweden. All of Sweden is now experiencing 5-10 degrees warmer weather than normal and we have never longed more for rain. We have fires above the Arctic Circle! Sweden is not built, and our great forests are not planned, to cope with these higher temperatures.

The average annual area burned by fire over the past 20 years in Sweden has been roughly 1,900 hectares. In 2014, a single forest fire burned 13,800 hectares and it was spoken of as possibly the worst the country had experienced since the 19th century. The 2018 fires surpassed 30,000 hectares last week, one of them on its own bigger than the 2014 fire.

Last year Portugal saw its deadliest fires ever, claiming at least 66 lives. These were also preceded by a massive heatwave. Spain, France, Morocco and Italy deployed firefighters and water bombing airplanes to help extinguish the fires. Almost 45,000 hectares were affected. The ERCC wrote in a statement that “the 2017 summer season has been marked by an exceptionally high activity in terms of forest fires”. I expect a similar statement this year.

Nobody predicted this heatwave hitting the Arctic Circle. During forest fire season the ERCC organizes weekly video conferences with the countries traditionally affected by 85 percent of area burned: Croatia, France, Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain. The participants will likely increase in number.

Sweden's primary concern should not be to purchase specialized water bombing planes, but to promote investment in more firefighting resources for the EU Civil Protection Mechanism. Only when we have access to massive firefighting resources can we feel safe, as wildfires may easily break out in many countries simultaneously. Sweden could certainly be one of the nations buying and maintaining a waterbomber, but it is the EU cooperation that will be necessary to manage the fires of the future. Buying a plane must be part of a bigger strategy.

IN PICTURES: Battling the wildfires in Sweden

To help Sweden, the ERCC has coordinated with EU countries to offer seven planes, six helicopters, 67 vehicles and some 340 personnel. Sweden is a country bigger in size than Germany, but with only 12 percent of its population. Investing in the type of equipment and manpower required to fight these huge disasters on our own is not feasible whichever way you bend the numbers.

Critical for firefighting is of course also the ability to predict, prevent and organize efforts. The expertise offered by other EU countries to minimize wildfire impact will be of huge importance for a country experiencing fires at a scale it has had no reason to previously consider.

And as the world looks upon the events unfolding in this extreme Swedish summer, I hope there are even more insights to be gained and acted upon. Climate change is real, and effects could be coming faster than most of us would prefer to imagine.

Sweden is on fire, and I believe it's everyone's business.

Per Axbom is a designer, coach and visual explainer based in Stockholm, Sweden, with more than 20 years' experience working in UX. Follow him on Twitter here.

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