How a map can predict the risk of wildfires near cities across Europe

A wildfire in Spain. Image: Getty.

The thing about natural disasters is that they're rarely as natural as they seem. Of course, earthquakes, landslides, and wildfires stem from natural causes, but the disasters they wreak often have as much to do with the response and preparation of those nearby as they do with the event itself.

On the last episode of our Skylines podcast, we discussed the fact that what may seem like a natural disaster can also be a failure in city governance. Nepal's 2015 earthquake was so devastating partly because many buildings in Kathmandu, the capital, were not built to withstand earthquakes, despite the fact that they're common in the region. While authorities knew an earthquake was likely, they did little about it in advance. 

This brings us to a map that landed in my inbox today from the University of Leicester. Researchers there have been studying areas of wildland which lie close to urban centres. It turns out this combination of landscape factors leads to a "serious risk" of wildfires.

You're more likely to have tourists tending barbeques in wild areas around cities, and temperatures tend to be higher in general near urban centres thanks to the Urban Heat Island effect. Meanwhile, if a fire does occur, it's more likely to reach people and their homes. 

By mapping the "Wildland-Urban Interface" areas (WUIs) across diffferent regions, the researchers believe they have mapped the risk of wildfires across urban areas in Europe:

Particularly at-risk areas include Catalonia, Madrid and Valencia.

Researchers also focussed a second map on regions which have experienced serious fires. Most are in the south of Europe, where conditions are warmer and drier:

Interestingly, the risk of forest fires has slightly gone up since farmers were hit by the financial crash. Many areas once used as farmland are now wildland which is vulnerable to burning, especially in the hotter, drier areas of southern Europe. 

Professor Heiko Balzter, Director of the Centre for Landscape and Climate Research at the University of Leicester, said that "to find that we can use [the] map to predict fire risk was a real breakthrough".

Now, he continued, it's up to local authorities to put the data to use before it's too late:

“In the regions we have identified as high-risk, local authorities need to prioritise fire risk control and develop better forest fire risk management strategies."




Sadiq Khan and Grant Shapps clash over free bus travel for under 18s

A London bus at Victoria station. Image: Getty.

The latest front in the row between Transport for London (TfL) and national government over how to fund the capital’s transport system: free bus travel for the under 18s.

Two weeks ago, you’ll recall, TfL came perilously close to running out of money and was forced to ask for a bail out. The government agreed, but offered less money, and with more strings attached, than the agency wanted. At present, there are a range of fare discounts – some up to 100% – available to children depending on their age and which service they’re using, provided they have the right Oyster card. One of the government’s strings, the mayor’s office says, was to end all free TfL travel for the under 18s, Oyster or no Oyster.

The Department for Transport’s line on all this is that this is about maximising capacity. Many working-age people need to use buses to get to their jobs: they’re more likely to be able to do that, while also social distancing, if those buses aren’t already full of teenagers riding for free. (DfT cited the same motivation for banning the use of the Freedom Pass, which provides free travel for the retired, at peak times.)

But in an open letter to transport secretary Grant Shapps, the mayor, Sadiq Khan, wrote that TfL believed that 30% of children who currently received free travel had a statutory entitlement to it, because they attend schools more than a certain distance from their homes. If TfL doesn’t fund this travel, London’s boroughs must, which apart from loading costs onto local government means replacing an administrative system that already exists with one that doesn’t. 

Some Labour staffers also smell Tory ideological objections to free things for young people at work. To quote Khan’s letter:

“It is abundantly clear that losing free travel would hit the poorest Londoners hardest at a time when finances are stretched more than ever... I want to make sure that families who might not have a choice but to use public transport are not further disadvantaged.”

London’s deputy mayor for transport, Heidi Alexander, is set to meet government officials next week to discuss all this. In the mean time, you can read Khan’s letter here.

UPDATE: The original version of this piece noted that the full agreement between the mayor and DfT remained mysteriously unpublished. Shortly after this story went live, the agreement appeared. Here it is.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.