The Western Balkans (WB) is one of the most affected regions in Europe by landscape fires (LFs). Climate change, land-use change, and the rural exodus are increasing the ecosystem’s vulnerability to landscape fires in the region.
To mitigate the negative impacts of LFs in the WB, it is necessary to have inclusive, cross-boundary cooperation and knowledge exchange to strengthen the capacities for landscape fire management (LFM) in the region.

Landscape Fires in the Western Balkans

Extreme weather events such as long-lasting droughts create the conditions for devastating fires. Post-fire rainstorms result in secondary disasters such as erosion, landslides, and siltation of rivers. Moreover, insect outbreaks (i.e. bark beetles) and plant diseases are common occurrences after landscape fires (LFs). Climate change, land-use change, and the rural exodus are increasing the ecosystem’s vulnerability to LFs in the Western Balkans (WB). Thus, the main drivers of LFs are climate change, human activities as ignition sources (resulting in 90% of human-induced fires), and accumulated fuel or combustible material management.

Notably, the WB, comprising Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo (UNSCR 1244/1999), Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia, is one of the European regions most severely affected by LFs. The total burnt area in the period between 2011 and 2021 was 1.138.352 ha (EFFIS). Due to various factors including climate change the fire seasons are steadily expanding and the LF risk is increasing.

Total burnt area in the WB in the period between 2011 and 2021 (Source: EFFIS)

To mitigate the negative impacts of LFs in the WB, it is necessary to have inclusive, cross-boundary cooperation and knowledge exchange to strengthen the capacities for landscape fire management (LFM) in the region.

Climate change

The WB region in southeastern Europe has significant climatic variability, spanning from coastal subtropical to temperate continental climates. Presently, the average temperature in the region stands at 10.9°C, with the warmest climates along the coast and colder temperatures in higher altitudes. Annual precipitation averages 807 mm, with the highest precipitation levels in the west and decreasing as you move east and southeast.

Albania, situated in the southern part of the region, currently experiences the highest temperatures in the WB, with a mean annual temperature of 12.1°C, whereas central Montenegro records the lowest at 9.6°C.

Climate change scenarios

The climate change scenarios for 2080-2099 suggest that North Macedonia and Serbia will experience the most significant temperature increase in July, with +3.2°C. The same applies to the scenario in North Macedonia and Serbia anticipating an increase of +7°C and +6.9°C, respectively.

The scenarios predict that North Macedonia will have the most substantial decrease in annual precipitation, with -58.7 mm. Furthermore, Albania expects the most significant reduction in precipitation at -146.3 mm, closely followed by North Macedonia at -145.2 mm. North Macedonia’s already arid climate is set to become even drier, with approximately 520 mm of annual precipitation, half the amount compared to other regional countries like Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina.


The total land area of WB countries is relatively proportionate to their populations. Serbia claims the title of the largest WB country with 8.8 million hectares of land and 8.9 million inhabitants. In contrast, Kosovo (UNSCR 1244/1999), the smallest country in terms of land area (1.1 million hectares), supports a comparatively substantial population of 1.8 million. On the other hand, Montenegro has the lowest population number in relation to land area, with 1.4 million hectares and a population of 0.6 million.

The population density reveals that Kosovo (UNSCR 1244/1999) has the highest density among WB countries, with 168 people per square kilometer. Serbia maintains a relatively moderate population density, despite its large land area, with 80 people per square kilometer. In contrast, Montenegro records the lowest population density at 46 people per square kilometer. Sparsely populated regions raise the risk of unnoticed LFs, which, in turn, increases the potential for large LF events.

Analyzing the ratio of urban to rural populations, Albania takes the lead with the highest urban population ratio at 59%. On the other hand, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and Kosovo (UNSCR 1244/1999) are exceptions with higher rural-to-urban population ratios. In both these countries, 60% of the population resides in rural areas, with 40% in urban areas.

Forest and other wooded lands in the Western Balkans

In terms of forested areas, Serbia takes the lead with an area of 3,049,502 ha, while Kosovo (UNSCR 1244/1999) possesses the smallest area with 481,000 ha. Concerning other wooded lands, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) leads the pack with 549,000 ha, whereas Kosovo (UNSCR 1244/1999) possesses the smallest area at 29,000 ha.

Forests, due to their abundance of fuel and remote locations, can be ideal environments for landscape fires. Additionally, the destruction of valuable wood resources during fires is a concern. Other wooded lands, often transitioning from abandoned agricultural areas, can also accumulate fuel and become susceptible to landscape fires.

The density of people in forested areas can influence landscape fire risk, with higher densities potentially leading to more ignitions through human activities. On the positive side, higher human presence can result in quicker fire detection and response as well as implementing prevention measures.

Public vs. Private Forest Ownership: Albania boasts the highest share of public forest among Western Balkan countries, with 97%, followed by North Macedonia with 90%. Kosovo (UNSCR 1244/1999), Montenegro, and Switzerland each have varying public forest percentages, with Serbia having the lowest share at 53%.

Public and private forests often have different characteristics. Public forests are generally part of management plans and receive more consistent attention. In contrast, private forests can be more neglected, accumulating larger fuel loads.

Share of Coniferous Trees: Among the Western Balkan countries, Montenegro leads in the share of coniferous species with 40.3%, while Kosovo (UNSCR 1244/1999), Serbia and North Macedonia have lower shares of 14.8%, 11.6% and 10%, respectively.

Coniferous forests tend to be more susceptible to landscape fires due to factors like higher sap content in branches and increased fire spread potential. Recognizing this composition is crucial for landscape fire management.

Main Tree Species: Beech (Fagus spp.) is the dominant tree species across all Western Balkan countries, with North Macedonia having the highest share at 50.6% and Serbia the lowest at 39.3%. The second common tree species is oak (Quercus spp.) which is common in four out of six Western Balkan countries.

Different tree species exhibit varying resilience to landscape fires, which is crucial to forest management in relation to enhancing landscape fire resilience and prevention.

Standing Volume in Forests: Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) has the highest standing volume with 163.8 m³/ha, while North Macedonia has the lowest at 76.6 m³/ha.

The standing volume is an essential indicator of fuel load. A high standing volume provides abundant fuel that can cause landscape fires.

Net Annual Increment: Albania demonstrates the lowest net annual increment, at 1.4 m³/year/ha, while Kosovo (UNSCR 1244/1999) has the highest net annual increment of 4.1 m³/year/ha.

The net annual increment reveals the forest’s restoration duration post-landscape fire. It also provides insights into forest rotation requirements for maintaining standing volumes.

Landscape fires and their ignition sources

Across the WB region, the primary cause of LF incidents is human activity. In Albania, 29% of LFs result from negligence, 9% from arson, and 61% from unknown factors (likely human-related). Natural causes, such as lightning, account for only 1% of fires. In BiH, there is no official data, but it is presumed that up to 98% of fires stem from human activity, primarily through agricultural burning and negligence. In Kosovo (UNSCR 1244/1999) and Montenegro, human activity, especially agricultural burning, is the primary ignition factor. In North Macedonia, 98% of LFs are attributed to humans, primarily through agricultural burning. Serbia experiences 66% human-induced LFs, with 31% of unknown origin, likely also human-related, and only 3% due to natural factors. Agricultural burning is a significant contributor to human-induced fires.

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