Forest and bushfires in Hungary: the canopy rarely burns, but the situation is still serious

In each of the past 12 years, there have been at least 2,600 wildfires in Hungary. The immediate cause is almost always human negligence, but global warming and agricultural methods are to blame as well.

Published On: November 7th, 2023

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Over the past 12 years, more than 2,000 square kilometres of forest and vegetation have burned in Hungary. The year 2012 accounted for almost half of this: in that year, more than 900 square kilometres burned. There are large fluctuations from year to year, linked in part to the duration of heatwaves, with peaks every two or three years. The exceptionally bad year of 2012 was followed by 2022, when the area burnt was more than three times that of the previous year.

From Bugac to Hortobágy

Of the more than 16,000 forest fires that took place in Hungary in 2012, the most serious were in the Bács-Kiskun county and Hortobágy, where it took a week of intensive work to extinguish the flames. 1,100 hectares were destroyed, 90 percent of which in a nature reserve. At the moment of highest alert, around a hundred professional firefighters with 33 vehicles were working every day to contain the fire, along with volunteers and civilians from the surrounding area. Helicopters were used to extinguish the fire in the centuries-old pine forest, some of which was inaccessible on foot. The cause of the fire has not been established.

This year’s most notable fire broke out on 25 July in the Hajdúbagos Nannospalax reserve of the Hortobágy National Park. Some 15 hectares of grassland burned in the reserve, and the fire also damaged three hectares of a nearby pine forest. To extinguish the fire, firefighters used three water hoses and other hand tools.

The following table is provided by the National General Directorate for Disaster Management.

According to the information provided to EUrologus by the National Directorate General for Disaster Management, the large-scale, hard-to- control forest fires that occur in southern Europe are unusual for Hungary. The climate, topography and vegetation composition are different in Mediterranean countries. In the Hungarian forests, surface fires occur when dead vegetation or small shrubs catch fire on the forest floor. If the fire reaches the canopy, it is called a crown fire. Crown fires are rare in Hungary, and when they do occur, they are confined to a very small area. Such rare cases occur in evergreen, lowland pine and juniper forests. Due to the weather, topography and vegetation composition in Hungary, natural forest fires are very rare, accounting for less than one percent of the total. 99 percent of forest fires are caused by human negligence or arson.

Water shortages

Zsuzsanna Ujj, an expert at the Hungarian National Society for Nature Conservation, says that two main factors have a decisive influence on the frequency of fires. One is climate change: as the earth’s surface temperature rises, it causes changes that, among other things, have a drying effect. The other is the nature of agricultural practices and land use, which have reduced the water-holding capacity of the soil.

As experts say, it is a banal truth but “the enemy of fire is water”. Firefighters say the same thing: they cannot tackle the root of the problem, only its symptoms. Disaster-management authorities point out that the greatest difficulty for firefighters in extinguishing forest fires is the lack of water in forests and fields. In the event of a fire, water has to be delivered to an area far from any natural watercourse or lake by special water transport vehicles. Near a burning forest or field, the temperature can reach 100 degrees Celsius. Firefighters work with superhuman effort in the summer heat, performing strenuous physical work for hours on end in protective clothing. It can take hours or even days to extinguish a major wildfire.

An example of such dire circumstances is the fire that broke out in the Hortobágy National Park on 3 August 2017, which devastated nearly a thousand hectares of land. Some parts of the area were so marshy and swampy that they were inaccessible by vehicle or on foot. The firefighters were supported by two helicopters from the Hungarian Defence Forces, which extinguished parts of the fire from the air. About 40 firefighters with 9 fire engines were involved over several days. The cause of the fire could not be determined.

Social work

Zsuzsanna Ujj agrees that Hungary should not expect to see large forest fires like those in southern Europe, let alone the catastrophic Australian or North American fires. At the same time, it needs to be prepared for out-of -control fires that spread into the forest canopy, as these can become dangerous to human life and property.

“Fossil-fuel emissions must be reduced to zero, but we’re certainly not going to meet the one-and-a-half-degree climate target. Heat waves will become more intense. We are a small country, but we are part of the consumer society, so the reduction of consumption and energy use must be a societal choice,” Ujj reckons. She adds that it is the duty of the state to plan thoroughly and set up a management structure to deal with the problem.

According to Hungary’s National Directorate General for Disaster Management, forest fires occur in two seasons: the dry spring and the hot summer. In spring, the spread of fire is facilitated by the fact that plants have not yet turned green: there is a large amount of dried vegetation and leaves from the previous year. In this case, humans have a specific responsibility. For instance, dry undergrowth can easily catch fire due to springtime gardening work.

In summer, when the weather is hot and dry, the dead leaves, pine needles and accumulated twigs and branches dry out completely and easily catch fire. In the vast majority of cases it is human carelessness that is to blame for the subsequent fires. Most of these wildfires occur between July and September.

Original source:

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