UPDATED: As firefighters struggled to gain control over the second major brushfire this week, experts were warning that Norway faces a new seasonal reality regarding fire danger. Emergency crews simply didn’t expect they’d need to fight such fires in the middle of winter, but a changing climate with unpredictable weather is now sparking calls for new levels of preparedness.
“Just a month ago, no one would have said there was a threat of brushfires in Trøndelag at this time of year,” Dagfinn Kalheim, director of the Norwegian fire prevention association (Norsk brannvernforening), told newspaper Dagsavisen on Thursday.
Instead firefighters found themselves facing the second potential fire tragedy of the week, when fire broke out on the island of Frøya. On Thursday afternoon, though, they could announce that the fire was extinguished and hundreds of evacuated residents could return to their homes. Emergency crews continued, though, to closely monitor the tinder-dry hills on the island and make sure the fire didn’t flare up again.
The counties of Nord- and Sør-Trøndelag were being deluged with rain just a few months ago, and subject to flooding.The area is normally under snow or at least very moist during the winter months, but a sudden dry spell that’s viewed as highly unusual left the area with very little precipitation during the past several weeks. Strong winds further dried out the grass and brush known as lyng that covers hills both inland and along the coast.
On Sunday, some electrical power lines were believed to have been tangled in the winds, setting off sparks that started the fire on the Flatanger peninsula in Nord-Trøndelag that devastated historic coastal communities as it raged for more than two days. Just as it was being brought under control on Wednesday, the other fire broke out farther to the south on Frøya in Sør-Trøndelag.
Children reportedly playing with lighters
Reports were emerging Thursday that some school children who were on an outdoor class excursion started playing with a bottle of perfume and a cigarette lighter. The mother of one of the school children told TV2 that one of them sprayed perfume while another ignited the lighter. Suddenly the tinder dry brush where they were playing was on fire.
“It spread incredibly fast,” the mother told TV2. “For the children and teachers, it was simply a matter of getting down the hill as soon as possible and back to the school.” The local newspaper also published reports of children playing with perfume and a lighter, but local sheriff Inge Dahlø wouldn’t confirm whether police had received the same indications of how the fire began. An investigation was underway.
They ended up getting busy evacuating nearby residents as the fire changed course and started heading for a residential area. Around 180 homes were evacuated by Wednesday evening.
Bans on campfires
Local authorities already had set up emergency bans on any outdoor campfires along the coast from Nordland in the north to Rogaland in the south. Such bans are common in Norway during the summer months, but not in winter.
Now officials are seriously re-thinking their fire preparedness given the unusually dry winter weather and wind storms that may be a new result of climate change. “We need to evaluate how to secure our firefighting abilities, with among other things having helicopters ready also in the winter,” Kalheim said.
They also need to recognize new risks, spread information about them and impose measures that can prevent fires, Kalheim suggested. Local firefighting crews all over Norway should undertake what he called a “vulnerability analysis” and go through their routines to ensure adequate emergency response.
“I don’t think vulnerability analyses are performed well enough or often enough,” Kalheim told Dagsavisen. He added that the sudden burst of brushfires in the middle of winter pose new challenges, for example that lakes that helicopter crews would use to fetch water for summer brushfires may be frozen in winter, and that fire hoses can freeze. Winds can also be so strong that helicopters can’t be used, as in the case of the Flatanger fire.
One local professor, though, cautioned against over-exaggerated security measures. Odd Einar Olsen at the University of Stavanger argued that emergency preparedness has never been so high in Norway as it is now, and that too much focus on crisis can lead to unnecessary political action.
State meteorologists, meanwhile, could see no end to the unusually high fire danger in Norway at present, forecasting continued dry weather in western and central Norway with temperatures below the freezing point. Even the snow that’s been falling in southern Norway is dry, they noted, lacking the moisture that it usually releases into the ground, with no signs it will melt any time soon.