Despite the size and number of fires this year, Germany has escaped compar­a­tively lightly due to the dense network of mostly volun­teer fire brigades and the high level of commit­ment of the emer­gency services on the ground. In view of the trend of increas­ingly severe and frequent forest fires, the aid organ­i­sa­tion @fire, which specialises among other things in national and inter­na­tional vege­ta­tion fire­fight­ing, believes that there is an urgent need to improve the forest fire­fight­ing capa­bil­i­ties of all those involved and to network them more closely. “Large forest fires know no borders and no bureau­cracy,” says @fire chair­man Jan Südmersen in his summary of the 2022 fire season.

@fire is a relief organ­i­sa­tion that has specialised in fight­ing large forest fires nation­wide and inter­na­tion­ally for 20 years. This summer, @fire has been requested to support regional response teams on numer­ous large forest fires. On the ground, the relief organ­i­sa­tion has advised lead­ers on the ground, contained and fought fires with little or even no water, carried out diffi­cult post-fire oper­a­tions, coor­di­nated aerial oper­a­tions and arranged for specialised equip­ment. With their yellow protec­tive cloth­ing, the special forces were often conspic­u­ous splashes of colour at the scenes of operations. 

In 2022, @fire was requested for forest fires in Treuen­bri­et­zen, Beelitz, Bad Lieben­werda, Munster mili­tary train­ing area, Penela (Portu­gal), Bad Saarow, Falken­berg, Saxon Switzer­land, Berlin - Gruneawald, Gironde (France) and in the Harz Moun­tains / Brocken. Based on their expe­ri­ence, the forest fire experts have iden­ti­fied four topics where the most urgent need for action exists.

@fire Chair­man Jan Südmersen (left) in the forest fire oper­a­tion in Saxon Switzer­land in Septem­ber 2022.

1. the lead­er­ship of the emer­gency forces must be improved

Even a large forest fire must not be an inter­nal emer­gency for the fire fight­ers. This requires good mission prepa­ra­tion, prac­ti­cal train­ing of lead­ers, who can then control oper­a­tions that last for weeks in a well-staffed and tech­ni­cally well-equipped command. However, this is usually the task of the districts, many of which are not able to do this in terms of person­nel and the level of expe­ri­ence and train­ing of the managers varies greatly. This could be reme­died by state-wide or nation­wide command support units and staffs, as is the case in the USA. So far, this has failed due to the federal system and often also due to parochial think­ing among many of those involved. It is now time to create the human resources to change laws, improve proce­dures and train­ing, and set up such units with federal and state support. 

2. the coor­di­na­tion of fire fight­ers must be improved

Due to the differ­ent respon­si­bil­i­ties and the numer­ous parties involved, differ­ent points of view and sensi­tiv­i­ties of politi­cians and admin­is­tra­tors, managers of the police, federal police, forestry author­i­ties, federal armed forces, THW, private aid organ­i­sa­tions as well as forest owners, spon­ta­neous helpers and vari­ous experts must first be discussed, balanced and processed in the direc­tion of good coop­er­a­tion. It is completely irrel­e­vant for the success of the mission which organ­i­sa­tion or author­ity is repre­sented - it really only depends on which func­tions are to be filled. 

In the end, after some time, it works some­how and with the good­will of all involved, but of course this is not a person-inde­pen­dent, secure and resilient foun­da­tion for the disas­ters to come. Here, the compo­si­tion of the staffs and the work processes must be improved and thus standardised. 

3. the fire fight­ers’ tool­box must be expanded

The great strength of the fire brigades in Germany is that, compared to other coun­tries, they can respond to forest fires much more quickly and effec­tively with a large number of fire engines. This almost always prevents small forest fires from becom­ing big ones, but at the same time it is also a prob­lem: if you only have a hammer as a tool, every prob­lem looks like a nail. Effec­tive forest fire­fight­ing requires not only fire engines, but also heli­copters, foot troops, pre-fire and later counter-fire, heavy bull­doz­ers. These special resources are currently not even avail­able for civil protec­tion, but have to be requested from vari­ous author­i­ties or organ­ised from the private sector. It is now time for civil protec­tion at federal and state level to set up its own special units for supra-regional deployment. 

4. fire-fight­ing aircraft - look good, but…

The inci­dent comman­der of a south­ern Euro­pean fire brigade only has to send a radio message when he needs a fire-fight­ing heli­copter (or a fire-fight­ing aircraft). A head of oper­a­tions in Germany often needs a compli­cated and time-consum­ing admin­is­tra­tive process to do this, with faxes and phone calls, waking up on-call staff, writ­ten autho­ri­sa­tions, etc. - depend­ing on the federal state. It would signif­i­cantly improve aerial fire­fight­ing if these bureau­cratic hurdles were removed and heli­copters were avail­able more quickly. But at the moment the public discus­sion is very much focused on fire-fight­ing aircraft. However, these only produce very expen­sive rain if they, too, are not on the ground fast enough and are also not led and deployed in a tacti­cally sensi­ble way. 

For the use of aircraft, there­fore, their rapid deploy­ment and safe avail­abil­ity must be improved, as well as ensur­ing smooth inte­gra­tion with the forces on the ground - whether heli­copter or aircraft.

Expe­ri­ence at home and internationally

Aktuell verfügt @fire über 400 ausge­bildete Einsatzkräfte, die neben einer guten körper­lichen Fitness, eine ergänzende Ausbil­dung sowie vielfach über spezielle Kennt­nisse und Erfahrun­gen im In- und Ausland verfü­gen. Daher ist @fire derzeit in Deutsch­land eine der weni­gen Organ­i­sa­tio­nen, die die Führung und Koor­di­na­tion im taktisch richti­gen Einsatz von Luft­fahrzeu­gen aller Typen bieten kann. Darüber hinaus beteiligt sich @fire seit vielen Jahren mit verschiede­nen Fach­leuten an der Mitar­beit in deutschen Fach­gremien, vom Norme­nauss­chuss Löschfahrzeuge, über den Arbeit­skreis Wald­brand im Deutschen Feuer­wehrver­band (DFV) bis hin zur länderof­fe­nen Arbeits­gruppe nationaler Waldbrandschutz.

In addi­tion, @fire has so far trained more than 200 fire brigades in the special features of forest fire­fight­ing in the preven­tive field. By the way: All activ­i­ties of @fire in the field of forest fire­fight­ing are carried out by its members on a purely volun­tary basis and inde­pen­dent of govern­ment support.