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'Fire Paradox': The more effective we are at suppressing wildfires the worse they behave

Fire suppression policies have eliminated the role fire plays in ecosystems

The Society We Live In

Throughout the history of humanity, there have inevitably been changes in customs, values and the aims sought by society. There have been key moments in the evolution of mankind which have not only involved changes from a social point of view, but also economic and environmental.

As we all know, the Industrial Revolution was one of these times as it marked the exodus of the rural population to the cities, even more significantly in the middle of the last century. Industrialization brought progress and benefits, but also direct impacts as concerns the decrease in agroforestry activity and the abandonment of rural lifestyles. Thus, with the passing of time, agricultural, farming and pasture lands have turned into homogeneous forest areas.

At present, on the contrary—and even more so since the pandemic—we are seeing a reverse process with people revalorizing life on the outskirts of cities and the resulting increase in urban-forest interface areas. The problem now lies in the idealization of living in forested areas without recreating traditional lifestyles and productive activities, but rather replicating and continuing with the customs of cities where the environment, considered as a contemplative good, must remain static and where any change would have a negative connotation.

And that’s where forest fires have come to be seen as a threat with the role they play in our ecosystems anything but understood.

Based on this ideology, society now has a practically non-existent forest culture where extinction policies aim for the complete eradication of fire from the stage with institutional budgets earmarked to improve the efficiency of services with greater resources through investments well above any made to manage our forests.

As a result, there are now territories with a lot of vegetation yet no management. And this leads to a high accumulation of fuel with horizontal and vertical continuity meaning that, when one occurs, any fire now has great potential to become fast and intense and, thus, difficult to contain and control despite all the resources available.


Fire Paradox

The more effective extinguishing services become by putting out small fires year after year, the fire regime ends up being modified. So, although it is possible to prevent tens or hundreds of hectares from burning, more and more fuel is continuing to accumulate in our forests. This problem is made apparent when fires cannot be contained during the initial attack and, as they spread and reach the unmanaged forest masses and hills without any discontinuities or patches to stop the inertia in their behavior, thus acquiring fast speeds and/or high intensities in the front, they eventually exceed all extinction capabilities and massively affect the nearby territory.

The statistics kept for any region normally reflect a trend in the time-series towards a decrease in the amount of surface area affected; however, there may be a year in which a single episode exceeded thousands of hectares. The most common reaction after such a season is for more resources, technology and personnel to be invested the following year. Yet, this only achieves a negative selection. It does not solve the underlying problem, but rather fosters the worsening of the actual cause behind it all.

In short, fires must be understood as disturbances within a changing ecosystem with an ecological role. In other words, fire is just one more way landscapes can adapt, diversify and renew themselves.


What role does climate change play in all of this?

The fuel load is increasing more and more, fires are more frequently escaping any initial efforts of containment and, in turn, entire extinguishing systems are being created to eradicate them completely from the stage. At the same time, the interface areas are growing with larger populations immersed in the problem as just another vulnerable element in the equation. Consequently, when a fire occurs, the emergency situation is even more complicated as it is no longer just a forestry issue, but rather a civil protection problem.

Wildfires are the visible part of the problem yet, in all reality, there is an imbalance in the landscape. We can try to maintain balance by increasing resources, but sooner or later, the capacity of extinction becomes exceeded and there can be a collapse in the emergency extinguishing services.

Climate change also makes the situation worse considering all the recurrent heat waves all over the world not to mention all the droughts and dry storms. In short, the imbalance characterizing our forests is being made absolutely clear. They are outside any climatic range and must adapt to the new times; however, in the absence of any type of territorial management action, our society is preventing any adaptation thereof and making them more mature and heterogenous. Climate change has essentially accentuated the problem and tipped the balance, forcing society to move away from defensive responses and plan new horizons.


What are the challenges for the future?

Forest management must no doubt be the pillar for more resilient forests. As can be seen, having greater resources will be of little use to us in the future when it will be impossible to fight extremely intense and rapid fires due to capacity and, thus, reasons of personnel safety.

To this end, the recovery of agroforestry activities can generate that mosaic where extinction units will have opportunities to deploy maneuvers and meet their objectives.

On the other hand, we need to stop seeing fire as a purely negative element and find ways to use it in forests through low-intensity prescribed burns in order to help the landscape adapt to the new era. It’s a major challenge for the future which requires extinguishing units with great forestry culture and knowledge on the use of fire as a management tool.

Marc Castellnou, Head of the Generalitat de Catalunya GRAF firefighting unit, summed this up when he said, “Low-intensity fires help us vaccinate our landscapes against high-intensity fires.” All things considered, we do not need more hospital beds or more doctors; we need a vaccine.


This content was made possible thanks to the Vallfirest x The Emergency Program agreement.

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