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Brussels, 24 July 2007

Natural disasters: update on EU civil protection activities

Since the end of June, the Commission's Monitoring and Information Centre (MIC) has received a total of 8 requests for assistance from Greece, Cyprus, Italy, Bulgaria and, most recently the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia - to help combat the forest fires raging across Southern Europe. These requests triggered an immediate response from the MIC. Assistance was made available through the Community Civil Protection Mechanism by various Member States, including Italy, France, Spain and Greece. The situation is now becoming particularly acute, with all Southern EU Member States and most neighbouring countries combating major fires on their own territory. The MIC is also monitoring the exceptional weather situation in the UK and stands ready to facilitate offers of assistance from other EU countries should the UK need any additional assistance in these difficult circumstances.

In the course of the last week, there have been four separate requests for assistance from countries grappling with forest fires. On 18 July, Greece requested - for the third time this summer - European civil protection assistance to help combat the forest fires raging throughout the country. The request triggered a rapid response from the Monitoring and Information Centre (MIC) of the European Commission. The MIC immediately alerted the civil protection authorities of the 30 countries participating in the Community Civil Protection Mechanism. The MIC's intervention resulted in two French Canadair aircraft being made available to help Greece tackle the fires. These aircraft arrived in Greece on Friday 20 July and returned to France on Monday 23 July. On Monday 23 July, the Greek authorities reported that no further assistance would be required and that the emergency could be closed down, only to have to reactivate the request for assistance several hours later following the death of the two pilots and worsening fires.

In the early hours of Saturday 21 July, the MIC received a new request for assistance from Bulgaria due to forest fires. Bulgaria has been experiencing forest fires affecting approximately 1 000 000 ha. The largest fire was near to Stara Zagora city where more than 300 000 ha was affected in the mountain region. The terrain meant it was not possible to use standard fire fighting equipment and fire fighting trucks. Bulgaria requested four helicopters with specialised water buckets for three days and two fire-fighting aircraft for three days. The MIC immediately passed this request on to the 24 hour contact points of the 30 participating countries of the Community Mechanism. Two EU countries requested further information regarding technical details but in the end were not able to offer assistance. Later on in the day on Saturday, Bulgaria reported that the situation was being brought under control as a result of assistance provided to Bulgaria by the Russian Federation in the framework of a bilateral agreement.

On Sunday 22 July, Italy made a new request for assistance to deal with severe forest fires in eastern Italy. France offered two Canadairs on Sunday and Spain offered two further Canadairs yesterday to fight fires in the Sardinia region.

In the early hours of Tuesday 24 July, the MIC received a request for assistance to deal with forest fires in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The MIC immediately forwarded the request to the 30 participating countries, which are currently assessing if they have any spare capacity to assist.

This year there have been extreme weather conditions in the South of Europe and forest fires have been particularly severe. Cooperation in the framework of the Mechanism has proven to work well. The MIC reacted quickly and effectively to facilitate and support the mobilisation of Member States' assistance. However, the MIC's experience also underlines the importance of further developing the Community Civil Protection Mechanism and strengthening the MIC by giving it an autonomous capacity to mobilise additional fire-fighting resources. A more robust European system is needed to deal with the increases in natural disasters across Europe. Last year, former Commissioner and French Minister for Agriculture Michel Barnier published a report on the establishment of an EU Civil Protection Force to deal with major disasters. The Commission is committed to exploring all possible ways to improve European civil protection cooperation and to work closely with Member States and the European Parliament in this respect.

In the meantime, weather conditions in the North are very different. The MIC continues to monitor the situation in the UK, which has not requested any civil protection assistance through the Mechanism to help them deal with the consequences of the floods. Some Member States have indicated that they would be able to offer assistance should it be required. The Commission is ready to activate the Mechanism quickly should the situation worsen in the coming days.

The Commission would like to extend its deepest condolences to the families of the three pilots killed while. operating fire-fighting aircraft in the last 24 hours. Yesterday afternoon, two Greek pilots died when their Canadair crashed while taking part in an operation to put out a major fire on the island of Evia. Yesterday evening, one Italian pilot was killed and another seriously injured in an accident during a fire-fighting operation in the area close to L'Aquila.

The Community Mechanism for Civil Protection

The Community Mechanism[1] aims to facilitate reinforced cooperation in civil protection assistance interventions. It ensures the coordination of assistance intervention in order to provide prompt support and to assist a country (inside and outside the European Union) in need of help. The main objective is to provide the best possible response and preparedness when a major emergency situation arises.

Such activities are coordinated by the Commission through the activation of its Monitoring and Information Centre (MIC), located in DG Environment, Civil Protection Unit.

30 states[2] participate in the Community Mechanism. These pool those resources that can be made available to disaster-stricken countries all over the world through this mechanism.

Since its creation, the Mechanism has been activated for a number of disasters worldwide, including the 2003 earthquake in Iran; the 2004 tsunami affected South East Asia; the 2005 forest fires in Portugal, flooding in Bulgaria and Romania, Hurricane Katrina in the US and the earthquake in Pakistan and more recently the earthquake in Indonesia and the humanitarian crisis in Lebanon. The Commission has reviewed the efficiency of the Mechanism and through its proposals is seeking to improve upon it.

[1] Council Decision of 23 October (2001/792/EC, Euratom) (OJ L297, 15.11.2001, p.7)

[2] EU 25, Bulgaria, Romania, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway

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