By Kate Abnett
BRUSSELS (Reuters) -The European Union is in talks with manufacturers to buy firefighting planes to battle the increased risk of severe wildfires like those raging in Southern Europe, the bloc's head of crisis management told Reuters.
The EU's emergency resources currently involves coordinating and funding the deployment of 12 firefighting airplanes and a helicopter pooled by EU countries. But as emergency requests are expected to grow because of climate change, the EU plans to invest in crisis-response aircraft, EU Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarcic said.
"These planes will be technically bought by the member states but they will be 100% financed by the European Union," said Lenarcic.
Lenarcic declined to name the companies involved as contracts have not yet been signed, but said plans are to relaunch production of amphibious planes that scoop up water to douse fires.
Thousands of firefighters across southern Europe were battling hundreds of wildfires in countries including Portugal, Spain and France on Monday, amid an intense heatwave that has caused hundreds of deaths.
As climate change increases fire weather - heatwaves and dry conditions that mean fires can spread faster and burn longer once ignited - more countries are requesting emergency help to tackle blazes.
The EU has already received five requests for help this year. With the Mediterranean not yet halfway through its typical June-September fire season, Lenarcic said Europe is facing a difficult summer. The EU received nine requests for assistance last year.
The EU sent firefighting planes to countries including Portugal, France and Slovenia this month using the pool of aircraft from countries including Croatia, France and Spain. It also stationed 200 European firefighters in Greece to support local teams.
EU countries are responsible for preventing and responding to forest fires, and request EU assistance only when they need back-up.
Last year was the bloc's second-worst forest fire season on record. Over half a million hectares burned, compared with over a million hectares in 2017, the worst year on record. Already this year, more than 70,000 hectares have burnt in Spain alone, the highest of the last decade, according to Spanish government data.
The EU's civil protection budget, which helps countries invest in preventing and responding to crises, was around 900 million euros in 2021.
"In the near future, it will have to be strengthened further," Lenarcic said, pointing to the increase in calls for assistance with climate-related emergencies, alongside other crises like the COVID-19 pandemic and the Ukraine war.
(Reporting by Kate Abnett in Brussels; Editing by Josie Kao)