Can Sweden cope with another summer heatwave?

Sweden's summer of 2018 caused an unprecedented spate of wildfires, destroyed forests and forced farmers to send animals to emergency slaughter. What happens if the country gets another summer like that?

Can Sweden cope with another summer heatwave?
How prepared is Sweden to face another summer of forest fires? Photo: Niklas Luks/TT

How big is the risk that Sweden will get another summer like last year's extreme weather?

“May last year was very dry and in some places almost 6C warmer than normal. Many areas had a similar story in June, and by July it was warmer than normal and extremely dry throughout the country. That's also when the forest fires started,” says Max Lindberg Stoltz, meteorologist at Sweden's national weather agency SMHI.

“This year, May has been colder and wetter, in some places more so than normal. Generally, I would probably say that the outlook is better. But remember that things can quickly move in the other direction if we get a long spell of dry weather.”

How well prepared are Swedish authorities for the summer?

“Much more so than last year. Among other things, we have improved our national capacity to combat forest fires from the air, strengthened the coordination of voluntary and international aid and the ability to help various actors collaborate and manage teams. We have also expanded the number of forest fire depots from 15 to 24,” says Anneli Bergholm Söder, operative head at the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency MSB.

Forest fire depots contain fire-fighting equipment such as fire hose, a six-wheel off-road vehicle with a trailer, water sprinklers and chainsaws.


Around 4,000 hectares of land burned in Fågelsjö, Härjedalen, in 2018. Photo: Adam Wrafter/SvD/TT

Can Sweden handle another summer of forest fires?

“No country can cope on its own with a summer as extremely dry as last year. We received massive support from the EU where we carried out the largest joint European operation to date. We are much better prepared this year and together with the various departments involved we will be able to face similar or even more intense fires than last year. In addition, we and the fire and rescue services have agreed to work much more proactively so we hope to be able to prevent a lot of fires,” says Bergholm Söder.

Is there anything the public should keep in mind this summer?

“You should make sure you are careful and always report it if you spot anything dangerous. It is always important to be careful when lighting a fire and to keep track of fire bans. Our groundwater levels are also low at the moment and we have had very little rainfall so far this year. It is therefore extremely important to be careful not to waste water. In Sweden, many people are spoiled with free access to water, but that could change rapidly,” says Bergholm Söder.

How do forest owners feel about this year's summer?

“May has been more humid, which improves the outlook. Forest owners are usually insured against fires, but after [last year's] fires more of them have understood that insurances are needed. There has also been a lot of work done to prepare and find ways of working in case things kick off and get dry and hot again. But it feels like more authorities have found a way of organizing themselves so that similar things should not happen,” says Sven-Erik Hammar, outgoing chairman of forest owners affiliated with the Federation of Swedish Farmers (LRF).


Polish firefighters arriving in Sweden to help battle the 2018 forest fires. Photo: Lisa Abrahamsson/TT

What has Sweden's forestry industry learned from last summer?

“The industry has learned many lessons from the major fires. One change we made after the fire in Västmanland in 2014 is that we do not run forest machinery when there is too high a risk. That has had a great effect – almost none of the fires last years were started by forest machines. The most important lesson is probably that we can't be as slow as in 2014, because then things unravel fast. The coordination with the local community did not work as well as it could have,” says Hammar.

How responsible is the public when it comes to preventing fires?

“Most fires start because someone did a poor job of putting out a fire. If there's a high risk you have to be careful, if there's a fire ban you shouldn't even light a fire. The public has to know that. It is good that stores are stopping the sales of disposable barbecues, that reminds everyone of our own responsibility,” says Hammar.

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