SARDINIA / EVIA / EXTREMADURA / LEIRIA / ODOU - Megafires have become a staple chapter in southern Europe, particularly affecting the most remote regions that are not taken sufficient care of. What does the escalating frequency of fires indicate for our future? Two cross-border teams of journalists have tried to raise awareness of the issue and prove that European countries need a better common strategy to respond to this threat.

The climate crisis, expressed by intensifying heatwaves and prolonged droughts, is fuelling uncontrolled wildfires — including across the Mediterranean countries. Every summer seems like Hephaestus has been taking advantage of them. 

While wildfires are not a new phenomenon, the crackling flames seem to echo the urgent warnings of a planet in distress. And once a fire emits more than 10,000 kilowatts of energy per square meter, it is considered a megafire. 

In 2017, Portugal’s megafires caused a trail of destruction that scarred both the environment and people. The flames raged through small towns, melting everything in their path, while local communities came across an unimaginable catastrophe. It was one of Europe's deadliest summers.

“If ever there was a hell on earth, for me it was there”, said Rui Rosinha, who worked as a volunteer firefighter in those fires.

The investigation done by journalists Lily Mayers, Paulo Nunes Dos Santos and Mikel Konate from Sonda Internacional focused on the trauma of these harrowing events, through the eyes of those who survived, while exploring the factors that contribute to the rapid spread of wildfires. Information mainly came from interviews they conducted with more than 20 people – including local residents, forest engineers, professors, authors, firefighters, and fire analysts.

The journalists travelled across Spain and Portugal, and visited numerous forest landscapes to understand the issue firsthand. In 2022, both countries led the list by number of fires and destroyed territory in Europe, with nearly 428,000 hectares burned in 2,726 fires (315,705 hectares in Spain and 112,063 in Portugal). The weather conditions both countries are experiencing have foreshadowed even more turbulent fire seasons in the future.

Their findings revealed that megafires are determined by three critical variables: forest continuity, shrub density, and weather conditions.

The publications were enriched with compelling pictures, powerful infographics and skilful data visualisation. Utilising satellite data, the journalists created interactive maps that vividly showcased the fires' effects over time. Taking advantage of the capabilities of digital media, they infused dynamism into their narrative, enhancing its depth. The third part of the investigation is to be published soon, focusing on possible solutions.

The 2021 summer fires in Europe were extremely devastating, too. Davide Mancini and Chloé Emmanouilidis were part of a large team who looked at the countries that were most affected: Cyprus, Greece, Italy and Spain. After having seen local people suffer, they decided to investigate whether urbanisation was a cause or an effect of the fires.

Davide and Chloé knew that there was an underlying connection between depopulation of rural areas and the wildfires. The challenge was to establish this link. They tried to do so through public archives. It turned out to be quite tricky: every country recorded this type of data in different ways. 

“In Italy, for instance, each municipality has to record wildfires, so there exists a public register, but I realised that just a tiny percentage of wildfires was actually mentioned in it”, says Davide. 

The team also tried to use Copernicus Open Access Hub, which definitely helped, but the evidence was still not strong enough because satellite data covered every kind of fire, including controlled burning for hazard reduction or farming purposes.

Because of this, both journalists agreed that they should highlight the socio-economic impact on the rural communities through personal stories. Each of them would visit the affected areas, and later they had to collect information which they then combined.

Going to fire-ravaged areas, although crucial, was a major mental challenge. “I was moved by what I heard”, admits Chloé. Locals finally felt like they mattered, that they had the means to express their pain. And they had a lot to say.

These interviews together with statements of mayors and NGOs were enough to showcase that the wildfires had a disastrous effect on tourism and some other unexplored aspects that this investigation shed light on, such as beekeeping and oil harvesting. Each case they researched revealed the same pattern of impact in all countries.

The story received big media coverage, which is beneficial for rural communities that are often neglected.

“This work encouraged me to start focusing more on rural areas while looking at environmental issues and the consequences of the climate crisis.”

Cross-border collaboration was a key to making these two investigations work. Comparing regional experiences proved that the wildfires affect the communities across the Mediterranean in a similar way regardless of economic condition and legal framework in each specific region.