European officials on Thursday unveiled the new RescEU emergency response system which will significantly increase the bloc's reserve of fire-fighting aircraft as climate change challenges continue to mount.
‘RescEU means European solidarity and protection...in this way, we can save lives, we can save properties,’ European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid Christos Stylianides told reporters at the Greek airforce base of Elefsina near Athens, home to part of Greece's fire-fighting fleet.
‘EU citizens...want to feel the union near them when they are tested by natural disasters,’ he said.
Greece was hit by a spate of wildfires last month, fanned by gale-force winds and temperatures of up to 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).
Fellow EU member Spain has frequently been plagued by huge forest fires, most recently on the holiday island of Gran Canaria.
Southern France suffered extremely dry conditions after weeks of drought and record high temperatures and it took over 500 firefighters to tackle a blaze in the Aude department last month.
The RescEU mechanism, which entered into force on March 21, is an ‘enhancement’ of the European civil protection mechanism which has been in place since 2001, officials said.
- 'A last resort' -
Under the old system, the EU had a first response team of eight fire-fighting aircraft from France, Italy and Spain.
But in 2017, when a series of wildfires erupted simultaneously in Portugal, killing over 60 people, other member states were battling fires at home and no help could be sent
‘The 2017 fires in Portugal were the catalyst. No EU reserves were available to send, and it became clear that something had to be done,’ a Greek official told AFP.
The new mechanism, which is still in evolution, sets aside a pool of 15 planes and helicopters provided by Croatia, France, Greece, Italy, Spain and Sweden, plus two more from the original French contingent.
‘It adds an additional layer, a safety net... as a last resort,’ an EU official said.
The European commission hopes to create a permanent fire-fighting force for the bloc with the purchase of new aircraft, with orders tentatively slated for 2021.
Next month discussion will be held with member states to decide how many new fire-fighting aircraft need to be purchased, and where they will be based, officials said.
The European Commission will cover 90 percent of the purchase cost. The remaining 10 percent will be paid by the state where they are to be based, an EU official said.
‘We must place orders early as it can take years before delivery. It's a niche market and only a few fire-fighting planes are produced every year,’ the official said.
Talks are also underway for additional tasks for the new RescEU mechanism, including medical evacuation, field hospital deployment and decontamination, including outside the bloc, officials said.
In 2018, EU emergency units helped handle emergencies in Guatemala, Colombia, Nigeria, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, officials said.
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