The last embers of this year’s fire season have finally been put out. But the next mega-fires are already in the gestational phase. Although they do not grab the headlines now, the coming fires are incubating silently: the fuel continues to grow and, as soon as the weather permits, they will attack again with renewed forces.
The figures this summer in southwestern Europe have been overwhelming: more than 80,000 people evacuated, around 460,000 burned hectares, a huge though unknown number of houses and farms burned and, worst of all, five people who have already they are not with us.
We have published the first study to examine both the causes and consequences of this year’s fire campaign in southwestern Europe, in order to prevent future misfortunes. The results suggest that we need a change in the paradigms that guide us to understand and interact with the forest.
Protected areas: victims and executioners
Our analysis reveals that the first paradigm we need to review is how we are managing protected areas. That is, spaces such as national or natural parks.
50% of the burned area has been located in protected areas. This indicates that protected areas are the major victims of forest fires.
But the large proportion of area burned in protected areas also suggests that fires may be preferentially burning protected areas. In other words: the current management of some protected areas, by not contemplating integrated fire prevention, could lead to particularly flammable types of vegetation.
This should not surprise us. Vegetation is often fire-adapted, and when unmanaged, high-intensity fire regimes can naturally develop.
Let us remember, for example, that one of the largest fires in the world occurred, in fact, in a national park. We are talking about Yellowstone in 1988, when 321,300 hectares burned in a single complex fire.
In fact, the biggest fires have burned emblematic areas such as the Sierra de la Culebra and the Monfragüe National Park in Spain, Serra da Estrela in Portugal and the Landes de Gascogne in France.
Although the main people affected have been people and rural economies, the fires favor rural abandonment. Something that, in turn, leads to the growth of fuel and a vicious circle is established that favors large fires.
Plantations: the profitable forest also burns
Forest management has been defended as the best tool to prevent fires. The paradigm that the profitable forest does not burn has been used on several occasions to explain, for example, why fires are rare in Soria.
However, this year records for burnt area have been broken in Aquitaine (France), an area where productive maritime pine plantations abound. There, the area burned has been 52 times greater than the long-term average.
The vaccine against fires is not in forest management itself, but in fuel management. That is, fires spread mainly through the undergrowth. Therefore, we must try to keep brush and litter loads below the thresholds associated with high intensity fires.
Classic forest management, understood as the regulation of tree density, is useful to reduce the probability of crown fires, but it is not enough to reduce the main fuel, which occurs in the understory (or fuel on the ground surface). .
The type of vegetation that has burned the most this year is precisely the scrub, due to its high fuel load. And then we find the natural or repopulated pine forests.
Climate change: catalyst for the fires
The third paradigm that we must abandon is that the current fires have been caused by climate change. This year thermal records have been broken due to the concatenation of heat waves. Our results indicate values in the humidity of the fuel (that is, in the leaves) below the historical minimums registered during almost 50% of the summer in some regions.
In addition, climate models tell us that this year’s temperature will be the average from 2035. That is, what we have suffered this year is nothing more than a preview of the new normality that is to come.
Climate change is therefore a catalyst, an accelerator of the problem of forest fires. But it acts on a substrate, which is the state of the fuels. Climate change imposes a greater urgency on the need to manage fuel to reduce the risk of future mega-fires.
Implications at European level
The European Union is currently developing a series of laws and strategies for the implementation of the European Green Deal. Among these, the Law for the Restoration of Nature stands out, whose proposal was approved in June. The current text proposes to increase the concentration of dead fuel in the forests, the spatial continuity of the fuels and the understory cover. From the point of view of the fires, we are facing the ingredients for the perfect storm.
We all want a good state of health for the natural environment and, although restoration is surely not as necessary as the preservation of what exists, we will not discuss its importance. But the current proposal hardly takes into account fires, which is living with our backs to reality.
John Lennon said in handsome boy that life is what happens while we are busy making other plans. The fires will be what happens while we plan the Green Deal, if we do not develop ambitious fuel management plans and combat climate change.
This article has been written in collaboration with Francisco Castañares, president of the Association of Friends of Monfragüe, and Celso J. Coco Megía, from the Almázcara Integrated Vocational Training Center.