Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on September 1, 2017.

Devil of a Summer



Fueled by wind and a heat wave named after the Devil, wildfires roared through Portugal, France, Italy, and other parts of Europe in July and August, a time when the area’s sun-drenched beaches and picturesque coastal hills are packed with visitors.

Thousands were evacuated as the blazes grew and spread. In Bormes-les-Mimosas on the French Riviera, photos show beachgoers captivated by the menacing plumes of smoke and red-orange glow capping the trees in the distance. More than 4,000 firefighters and troops with over a dozen firefighting aircraft were mobilized to fight the France fires, according to The Guardian, and over two dozen firefighters and police officers were injured or affected by smoke inhalation.

In Italy, fire and smoke covered Mount Vesuvius and its surrounding areas, claiming two civilian lives. The smoke rising from Vesuvius was so thick that it initially prompted fears that the active volcano, which famously erupted and decimated the city of Pompeii in 79 C.E., had blown once again. According to Italian media reports, the mafia has been suspected of starting at least some of the fires, after burned cat corpses were discovered near where the blazes originated; the mafia has previously used animals doused in gasoline to start fires, the reports state. These weren’t the only Italian wildfires to generate controversy in recent months. In August, a band of 15 volunteer firefighters admitted to setting a series of wildfires in Sicily between 2013 and 2015 so they could get paid to put them out.

The Continent has been gripped by a summer heat wave dubbed “Lucifer,” which sent temperatures soaring above 105 degrees F in some areas. In June, more than 60 people died in a wildfire that swept through central Portugal, and as of August, wildfires continued to burn there. On August 17, government officials there took the rare step of declaring a “state of public calamity,” allowing authorities to mobilize more emergency assets and quicken emergency response times.

The European Forest Fire Information System’s fire map showed wildfires burning in nearly every European country from July 15 through August 14, with the most speckling Ukraine and southwest Russia. A Popular Science article in August described the map, which places a red or orange dot on active fires, as looking like “the end of the world.” So far this year, the article said, an area about the size of the state of Rhode Island has burned in wildfires in Europe.

Experts like Lucian Deaton, project manager of international partnership development for NFPA’s Wildfire Division, say these fires demonstrate a new reality as it relates to climate change and the wildfire risk that comes with it for European countries—and countries around the globe. “Wildfires are burning differently than we have come to expect and plan for,” he said. “Recent fires in Chile, Ireland, South Africa, here in the U.S. in Florida and California, and now in Portugal all highlight the challenges posed by a changing climate and shifting fire seasons. Areas that previously didn’t think of wildfire, like southern England, are now recognizing the risks of a warming and drying climate against environments and vegetation that are becoming more fire-prone.”

Deaton said Portugal’s neighbor, Spain, hopes to by next year become the first country outside of the U.S. and Canada to celebrate Wildfire Community Preparedness Day, an NPFA event that encourages wildfire prevention efforts like clearing brush to create defensible space. The Barcelona-based Pau Costa Foundation is working with NFPA to use the event to promote wildfire safety and Firewise USA, NFPA’s cornerstone wildfire safety program, in the country. More information about Firewise can be found online.


Thousands evacuated as festival stage erupts in flames in Barcelona

More than 20,000 people escaped unscathed when a stage turned into a raging fireball at the Tomorrowland UNITE electronic dance music festival in Barcelona in July.

The fire was sparked by a “technical malfunction,” according to a Facebook post from festival organizers. “Thanks to the professional intervention of the authorities, all 22,000 visitors were evacuated safely and without reports of injuries,” the post continues. “Authorities will follow up and continue the investigation with the local Spanish organizer of UNITE.”

The fire halted the remainder of the festival in Barcelona and also prompted the cancellation of its stop in Taiwan, according to NPR. Festival-goers captured cell phone videos of the blaze, in which the crowd shows little sense of alarm, some even cheering as the flames and smoke grew.

Once niche events catering to diehard music fans, music festivals are now a staple in many countries, attracting revelers young and old. With the boom in popularity has also come an increased focus on keeping attendees safe during the mass gatherings, which sometimes take place on vast, remote expanses of land and can present unique fire and life safety challenges. These challenges were highlighted in the July/August 2016 cover story in NFPA Journal, “Life of the Party.”


Supporting electrical safety in Central America

In 2016, using renewable energy sources like wind and solar power, Costa Rica was able to produce 98 percent of its electricity without oil—an impressive feat, especially for a country of less than 5 million people.

While green energy provides new opportunities for industrial growth in the Central American country, it also presents new hazards for the electrical, engineering, enforcement, and fire communities there. That’s one reason why Costa Rica is pursuing updating its National Electrical Code® (NEC®) requirement from the 2008 edition to the 2014 edition, the most recent Spanish-language edition. In August, NFPA staff, including NFPA President Jim Pauley, visited the country to support this effort and meet with government, fire, and life safety officials during a conference hosted by the country’s College of Electrical, Mechanical, and Industrial Engineers.

Man inspects solar panels.

Green Initiative Costa Rica's effort to produce electricity without the use of oil has helped spur a push to adopt a more recent edition of the Spanish-language NEC. Photograph: Getty Images

“As safety-conscious practitioners, we can’t approach code awareness slowly or simply stick to what we know,” Pauley said. “If we do, technology and progress will outpace us. … The beauty of the NEC is that it represents the most current collective wisdom of so many so that people and property can be safe from fire and electrical hazards.”

Mexico is also considering replacing the 2012 Mexico Electrical Installations Code with the 2014 NEC, and NFPA is working with other Latin American countries on similar efforts.

The first Spanish-language edition of the NEC was published in 1927—30 years after it was first published in English. As such, Latin America has had to absorb and adopt critical electrical safety benchmarks at a faster pace than countries like the United States. NFPA hopes to make the process easier in the future by closing the gap between code cycles to allow for new editions of the NEC to be available simultaneously in English and Spanish.

For more information on the NEC, visit NFPA’s new NEC website, which includes a section specifically on NEC adoption and use in Latin America.

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Getty Images