Thousands across Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Lebanon are fleeing their homes as historic wildfires whip through the region. This is climate change in its manic phase. And it is getting worse.
The UN’s sweeping climate report, published Monday, warns that earth will cross a critical 1.5o C temperature threshold by 2030, some 10 years before previously estimated. This means more frequent and more intense weather events across the globe.
Extreme weather events are ‘stress multipliers,’ increasing pressure on already strained systems: from the natural (fires, floods, disrupted food chains) to the economic (tourism, agriculture), to the political. Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, for one, is facing tremendous backlash from citizens due to his (mis)handling of the country’s worst ever fires amidst an economic downturn and the shaky Covid recovery.
From North America to South, Europe to Siberia, Africa to Australia, greater areas are at risk for ‘horror movie-like fires’. Man-made emissions from hydrocarbon extraction and industrial processes are making the earth’s life-giving cycles more erratic and more destructive. These extreme weather events are indifferent to sovereign borders. This means – for better or for worse – climate changes offers an opportunity for nation states to join together in attacking a common enemy. Capacities to fight the causes and effects of climate change, however, vary widely.
The disparity in readiness is even more apparent when comparing the Greek and Turkish responses to the Mediterranean wildfires. Greece is operating 39 firefighting aircraft with additional resources coming from the EU and Russia. At the same time, Turkey has admitted that none of their three fire-fighting planes are airborne due to lack of maintenance, with only a handful of aircraft mobilized by friendly nations, including Russia and Iran, currently operational.
As crucial infrastructure, such as power grid systems are in increasing danger, a collective response is being formed through commitment of resources from neighboring countries. Additional aircraft and crews were sent earlier from Ukraine, Russia, Azerbaijan and Iran, while Greek assistance was rejected, prompting a social media backlash on the acceptance of help.
There is a motive behind the politics of firefighting aid: under the Islamist AKP party rule, Turkey has a long-standing effort to boost its relations with non-EU nations while distancing themselves from the West. This most prominently includes Russia, with support consisting of a handful of Beriev 200 amphibious aircraft and Ilyushin-76 heavy transport planes equipped with a temporary 11,000 gallon tank.
The Beriev 200 is widely considered the best fixed wing aircraft for firefighting, designed to skim up to 1300 meters of lake surface at 128 mph, picking up 3,100 gallons of water in 14 seconds. This is the only amphibious jet airframe in the world, combining the large water and fuel capacity of a fixed with plane with the in-situ refilling capacity of helicopters.
These planes are tried and tested from the forests of Siberia to Israel, and are currently employed in Greece. With the retirement of the only firefighting Boeing 747 airframe, the U.S. Government is forced to find an alternative for their firefighting large tanker fixed wing craft. The current funding regime is a “call when” basis where the private owner, Global Supertanker Services, is responsible for all costs with no guaranteed income. In April 2021 GSS shut down and sold their 747 to be converted into a cargo plane, something in high demand during the pandemic.
As the climate is getting hotter, firefighting planes are at a premium. Back in Turkey, despite the AKP’s foreign policy pivot to non-EU nations, the scale of the wildfires has forced them to accept assistance from EU countries, including resources from Spain and Croatia. It is through the European Union’s Civil Protection Mechanism that these resources were mobilized. When Sweden experienced unprecedented forest fires in 2018, the largest aerial mobilization to date occurred, consisting of 360 personnel, 7 planes, 6 helicopters, and 67 vehicles, and a total transportation cost quoted at €1.15 million.
Civil defense organizations, equipment, and funding are increasingly important around the world. A secondary benefit of these cooperative systems is the opportunity to evaluate the best approaches and equipment for fighting fires.
A staple fire fighting aviation innovator is Canada’s Coulson Aviation Inc. They have spent decades and millions of dollars developing the capability to provide rapid response aerial fire protection. Their services are employed by countries around the world costing customers $8,000 an hour to operate one of their Chinook helicopters.
On July 9th, a single Chinook dropped 80,000 gallons of water in 32 drops from 2:30 a.m. to 4:00 a.m. onto the Tuna Fire in Malibu, California. The total property value saved is yet to be determined.
The benefit of Coulson’s approach is their combined efforts to provide on-site control helicopters along with water carrying craft. They are also the only private outfit flying both helicopters and larger fixed wing aircraft. These larger craft are at a disadvantage as they typically need to return to an airport to refuel and reload water. Helicopters are capable of using smaller bodies of water to replenish their reserves on site.
The United States Federal fleet is maintained by the US Forest Service and some by the US Air Force. Without companies like GSS or the Coulson Aviation Inc. the US does not have the adequate capacity for firefighting aircraft. As fire risks continue to rise, the creation of a new civil defense system is a top priority. Whether international, regional, or privately owned and operated, fixed wing aircraft are an essential quick response tool in global firefighting, one the US fails to take seriously.
Energy, ingenuity, and investment in global cooperation needs to increase for a successful defense against the forest fires to be mounted. Joint action here – if effective – can serve as a model for tackling future shared climate challenges.
With Assistance From Sean Moroney