European Commission wants independent firefighter plane fleet

The European Commission is doubling the number of its firefighting planes ahead of this year’s wildfire season, with plans to build its own EU-budget-funded fleet in the next few years.

“Over the past decades, we have noticed ongoing trends concerning the increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather-related events, which show we already are in the midst of climate crisis,” EU Crisis Management Commissioner Janez Lenarčič told a group of reporters, including EURACTIV, on Tuesday (30 May) in Brussels.

Last summer was a “record” for wildfires in Europe, he said, adding that the EU’s Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC) “hit a record number of requests for assistance and we have deployed a record number of assets in order to help member states cope with those wildfires”.

The ERCC is the EU executive’s crisis room where its personnel matches countries’ needs and offers in the event of catastrophes and supports the EU’s civil protection mechanism.

It has helped with the repatriation of EU citizens from China in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and the populations impacted by the earthquake in Turkey and northern Syria earlier this spring.

RescEU is also composed of medical equipment such as masks and COVID-19 vaccines, as well as preparedness for chemical, biological, radioactive or nuclear crises such as iodine tablets.

The RescEU firefighting aircraft reserve will now be composed of 28 aircraft, ahead of the next wildfire season, Lenarčič said, upgrading the currently 13-plane fleet.

The upgraded reserve will include 24 aeroplanes and 4 helicopters from 10 member states. Planes will be provided by Croatia, Cyprus, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden. Helicopters will come from the Czech Republic, France, and Greece.

The firefighting planes are part of the Commission’s RescEU capacity, a reserve of critical capacities to better respond in case of crisis, as a last resort.

The EU will also count on a 400-strong force of firefighters from France, Portugal, and Greece, Lenarčič also said.

The upgrade follows the commitment made by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen last September when she promised the strengthening of the EU civil protection capacities.

Permanent fleet coming

Out of the 28 planes, so far only two were funded by the EU budget. Others are existing capacity of member states, and only temporarily assigned to the fleet.

This transitional arrangement will be turned into a permanent armada at the European Commission’s disposal to fill the current capability gaps in fire-fighter tankers, so-called Canadairs.

This way, EU member states won’t have to commit their existing assets to the fleet, and the Commission would not have to rely on and put a strain on national capacity gaps.

“All 28 planes are funded by the Commission, at least during the fire season, between mid-June to the end of October,” Lenarčič said.

Going from the current transition capacity and the permanent one will “take quite a lot of time for especially medium amphibious aircraft,” he added.

The newly-built Canadairs the EU will purchase will be coming in the “next few years”, Lenarčič said.

The tankers will likely become available in 2027 and the full fleet in 2030, EURACTIV understands.

[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]


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