A European-scale analysis reveals the complex roles of anthropogenic and climatic factors in driving the initiation of large wildfires

Clara Ochoa, Avi Bar-Massada, Emilio Chuvieco

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Analysing wildfire initiation patterns and identifying their primary drivers is essential for the development of more efficient fire prevention strategies. However, such analyses have traditionally been conducted at local or national scales, hindering cross-border comparisons and the formulation of broad-scale policy initiatives. In this study, we present an analysis of the spatial variability of wildfire initiations across Europe, focusing specifically on moderate to large fires (> 100 ha), and examining the influence of both human and climatic factors on initiation areas. We estimated drivers of fire initiation using machine learning algorithms, specifically Random Forest (RF), covering the majority of the European territory (referred to as the “ET scale”). The models were trained using data on fire initiations extracted from a satellite burned area product, comprising fires occurring from 2001 to 2019. We developed six RF models: three considering all fires larger than 100 ha, and three focused solely on the largest events (> 1000 ha). Models were developed using climatic and human predictors separately, as well as both types of predictors mixed together. We found that both climatic and mixed models demonstrated moderate predictive capacity, with AUC values ranging from 79 % to 81 %; while models based only on human variables have had poor predictive capacity (AUC of 60 %). Feature importance analysis, using Shapley Additive Explanations (SHAP), allowed us to assess the primary drivers of wildfire initiations across the European Territory. Aridity and evapotranspiration had the strongest effect on fire initiation. Among human variables, population density and aging had considerable effects on fire initiation, the former with a strong effect in mixed models estimating large fires, while the latter had a more important role in the prediction of very large fires. Distance to roads and forest-agriculture interfaces were also relevant in some initiation models. A better understanding of drivers of main fire events should help designing European forest fire management strategies, particularly in the light of growing importance of climate change, as it would affect both fire severity and areas at risk. Factors of fire initiation should also be part of a comprehensive approach for fire risk assessment, reduction and adaption, contributing to more effective wildfire management and mitigation across the continent.

Original languageEnglish
Article number170443
JournalScience of the Total Environment
StatePublished - 20 Mar 2024

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2024 The Authors


  • Fire
  • Fire risk
  • Forest fires
  • Human factors
  • Ignition probability

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Pollution


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