Saturday, August 11, 2007

EU plans to form firefighting force

International Herald Tribune: As forest fires sweep through southern Europe each summer, hard-pressed governments turn to their neighbors to borrow spare aircraft that can scoop up water from rivers or lakes and bomb the flames. But when one of the European Union's newest nations, Bulgaria, requested such help this year, it found that all the firefighting aircraft were already in use. In desperation, the government in Sofia had to rely on Russia instead.

Chastened by that experience and overstretched after one of the worst months for forest fires on record, the European Union is drawing up plans that could lead to the creation of an emergency firefighting force. The idea has gained support because of the growing number of extreme weather events that many scientists have linked to climate change. A firefighting fleet also appeals to policy makers eager to demonstrate to voters that the EU is making a practical contribution.

…But making such a fleet a reality will test the Union's capacity to spend money and pool resources to combat the growing range of problems that cross borders. A similar initiative designed to help countries deal with sudden flows of migrants arriving at their borders has so far proved disappointing.

First proposed last year, the idea of putting a European fleet of water-bombing aircraft on standby has gained momentum after a devastating series of fires in July...

The EU's Monitoring and Information Center, which coordinates pleas for assistance among European nations, received eight requests for help in July, from Greece, Cyprus, Italy, Bulgaria and Macedonia.

…After talks last month, Sarkozy and Caramanlis agreed on the need for closer cooperation on firefighting, an idea proposed last year by Michel Barnier, former European commissioner for regional policy and now the French agriculture minister…

In that report, Barnier called for a uniformed European civil protection force with a minimum of 10 aircraft to be on standby, ready at 12 hours' notice. One major issue is whether the EU or the national governments would own the planes: each costs about €19 million, or $26 million. At present, countries have their own fleets and do not generally charge to lend them to other nations that are battling fires.

If a European firefighting force were set up independent of national governments, it would face difficult questions about how to deploy planes when resources were overstretched. After studying the options, officials are likely to produce a policy for approval by the European Commission. That would then require the approval of member states before a European firefighting fleet could finally become airborne.

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