Are wildfires our enemy?

Antonio Jordán
University of Sevilla, Spain

The Second Workshop on Forest Fires at the University of Seville was held last June 29, sponsored by the Spanish Network on the Effects of Wildfires on Soils (FUEGORED). Although the workshop is aimed at students of the Faculty of Biology (University of Seville), it was attended by almost a hundred people, including undergraduate and post-graduate students in Biology, Environmental Science, Chemistry, Physics, Geography and Engineering, as well as technical staff of the Centre for Fire Fighting (INFOCA) and researchers from different universities and research centres.

During the conference various issues relating to forest fires were discussed, but two questions hung in the room during the day.

The first is why is there so little relationship between the organisms responsible for decision making and the scientific community? It’s hard to explain, especially when proper environmental management involves a transfer of information in both directions. Surprisingly, this question persists, especially when the efforts by the scientific community are intense. And even more when forums like this are attended by technical staff in fighting fires or involved in the management of areas affected by wildfires.

In Spain, for example, the Spanish Network on the Effects of Wildfires on Soils was funded in its early years by the former Ministry of Science and Innovation (now a mere agency of the Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness), and has endeavored the sharing of data, knowledge, research results and management recommendations. However the response is very poor. Why? Probably because of social pressure, the need for votes or simple neglect.

The second of the big questions: How to fight fires? About 25 years ago, in a well-known ad broadcast in the media, pop stars marched singing “all against fire, all against fire.” The fire was an enemy to be fought, completely eliminated. However, we now know that fire is not completely alien to the ecosystem. In the Mediterranean area, as in many other systems, fire is an agent who has contributed to shape the current Mediterranean vegetation and landscape through the selection and adaptation of species, causing a greater diversity than the other European systems.

The use of fire by man has been constant in Mediterranean systems for centuries until the arrival of industrialization of agriculture and economic development. According to Antonio Jordán (University of Sevilla, Spain), this process arrived Spain during the mid-twentieth century, when rural exodus to the cities was intensified and a massive abandonment of agricultural areas occurred. As a result, traditional management systems, systems of terracing, clearing the forest or the care of forest roads were abandoned, inducing both accumulation of fuel in forests and its spatial continuity. This led to an increase in the number and extent of forest fires from the 1960’s. According to Jorge Mataix-Solera (University Miguel Hernández, Spain), “the fire has always existed, what man has changed is only the regime of fire”. Forest fires are a significant part of the history of ecosystems in the past and present. Both in slightly disturbed ecosystems and in those deeply modified, fire is has been used as a tool by Man.

At present, the abandonment of traditional management of agricultural systems and the obvious danger for materials and human lives that has caused the neglect of forest management makes people to see wildfires as enemies to be eliminated. It is also necessary to note that after the action of economical and agronomical interests are involved. But neither the problem is fire nor the solution is to completely eradicate wildfires. The latter is impossible, so researchers wonder if it is more efficient a sound management of the fire instead of trying to eliminate it.

Burnt area in Macastre (Valencia). El País, 1/7/2012.

Surprisingly, at the end of the workshop, we met with the news of a large wildfire in the region of Valencia (Eastern Spain). After three days, while I am writing this, the fire is still active. More than 50000 hectares have been destroyed in various municipalities and thousands of people have been evacuated. Several people have been arrested as alleged responsible for the origin of the fire. But one must ask who is responsible of the conditions for these fires to become large wildfires. Areas such as the Spanish Mediterranean coast are prone to fires. However, the occurrence of large wildfires in Spain may be due to the management of rural areas in recent decades.

According to Artemi Cerdà (University of Valencia, Spain), “we often forget that fires will occur and we do not act as necessary to manage them effectively and avoid serious risks. Fires, unlike what everyone thinks, are not as harmful as it seems. Erosion rates and water loss are greater in agricultural areas than in fire-affected areas, for example. In the forest, also scrub become true fertility islands that prevent the succession of fires to grow rapidly. We must understand the fire naturally. Soil erosion in burnt forest is not as bad as we use to think”.

According to Jorge Mataix-Solera, “our grandparents applied what is now called forestry fire prevention without knowing. This abandonment powered by socioeconomic changes and the recolonization of the environment by the Mediterranean vegetation have led to a very dangerous situation, where under certain conditions, large areas may be consumed by extremely virulent wildfires. “

What are the proposals? Jaime Baeza (CEAM, Centre for Mediterranean Environmental Studies, Spain) has said that controlling  biomass (fuel) is essential for fire risk management. He proposes to create discontinuity areas to facilitate the work of extinction, leading to fewer sources of ignition by the lack of vegetation, a technique that involves less risk than controlled or prescribed burning. Another solution is proposed by Jorge Mataix-Solera, “we have to give value back to the mountain as a resource and encourage business in rural areas.” According to Artemi Cerdà, “we spend more money and efforts fighting fires than preventing them”.


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