Climate change is fueling megafires that can’t be extinguished with helicopters and fire trucks, so Europe’s most fire-prone region has come up with new ways to protect forests. In many parts of the continent, countries are letting smaller fires burn, using historic data to model future fire behavior and offering subsidies to encourage land owners and people living close to forests to manage them properly. Over the long term, the goal is to turn forest management into a profitable activity that can also revive rural economies.
“There are a number of different tools and the secret is combining all that’s available,” said Alexander Held, a wildfire expert at the European Forest Institute, a research center set up by European Union members.
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Mediterranean nations spent around 200 billion euros ($237 billion) in the past two decades to build up some of the world’s largest, best-equipped firefighting forces. While sheer spending has helped Spain, France, Italy and Greece reduce the area burnt in the past 40 years, it won’t protect them against catastrophic fires.
“We’re very good at controlling and suppressing 97% of all fires in Europe because of our good fire services, but if a fire is in that small range where you have severe weather conditions, then all your fire suppression army won’t help you,” Held said. “Under these conditions there’s nothing you can do other than hope it goes over quickly.” That’s why preventative measures are so important, he said.
Countries like Portugal and Spain are starting to move away from the decades-old strategy of extinguishing all fires. Prior to that, and much like in California, small-scale fires had always been part of the Mediterranean ecosystem. Stamping out fires allowed forests to grow much thicker than before, meaning there’s much more biomass to burn if a fire starts.
Climate change is bringing more frequent, more intense and longer heatwaves in the Mediterranean. That, coupled with strong winds and an increase in lightning can generate conditions similar to those seen in the Western U.S. this year, in which wildfires spread incredibly fast and sometimes end up generating their own weather systems, leading to even more blazes.
This phenomenon, known as pyrocumulonimbus, happens when heat, ashes and smoke from large wildfires come in contact with moisture from the air over the ocean. When moisture condenses, it creates clouds that can travel fast through the atmosphere, pushed by strong winds, and create electric storms far from the initial blaze, lighting even more fires. It was first measured in detail during the devastating fires in Chile in January 2017, and has also been documented in Portugal, Australia and the Western U.S.
“When you get a pyrocumulonimbus it’s too late, it becomes impossible to stop the fire,” said Marcus Lindner, principal scientist at the European Forest Institute. “Aircraft can’t fly above and there’s no chance for people on the ground to approach the fire because it moves at a high velocity.”
At the forefront of prevention measures is Portugal, whose policies took a radical turn in 2017 when a heatwave and strong winds led to the country’s most tragic fire event to date. About 520,000 hectares burned that year, compared to an average of 117,000 in the past four decades. At least 120 people died in the fires, including 47 who lost their lives on a rural road in Pedrogao Grande when the flames engulfed the area, trapping them in their vehicles.
After that, Portugal set up a government fund to cover forest management upkeep, including subsidies for forestry and agriculture, fuel reduction programs and promoting woodchips as a source of energy. That has been coupled with the use of drones, satellites and advanced fire analysis techniques, all of which are part of firefighter training.
In Spain, the Pau Costa Foundation is among Europe’s strongest promoters of fire prevention solutions. The foundation, named after a 31-year-old firefighter who lost his life along with four other colleagues in a fire in 2009, has set up a program that uses sheep and goats to clean up forests.
Under the Ramats de Foc, or Fire Flocks, program, firefighters tell shepherds where to take their sheep and goats so they graze in forest areas most vulnerable to fire. At the same time, local butchers sell fire flock-labeled cheese and meat, giving the shepherds another source of income.
“Intensive ranching has done a lot for us historically and we need to learn to work with shepherds again,” said Juan Caamaño, a founder of the Pau Costa Foundation. “A very small percentage, maybe 2% of the total fire budget, goes into prevention –that needs to change.”
Some solutions can be easily replicated –the Fire Flocks program is now expanding to the U.K. and some areas in California are also using goats to clean up grass and brush. But megafires burn in different places for different reasons.
In California, a five-year drought and the spread of an infestation of tiny bark beetles has led to 150 million trees dying. Governor Gavin Newsom has clashed with President Donald Trump over the causes of the state’s increasingly destructive fires, with Trump – who once called climate change a hoax – blaming what he considers the state’s poor forest management. Newsom insists the influence of climate change is obvious.
“I’m a little bit exhausted that we have to continue to debate this issue,” Newsom said at a recent press conference, standing among trees charred by one of the state’s current fires. “This is a climate damn emergency. This is real.”
As California’s fire seasons have grown more destructive, the state has ramped up spending on preventing wildfires and fighting them once they erupt. Despite an estimated $54 billion deficit caused by the coronavirus pandemic, California’s current budget increased spending for the Office of Emergency Services—the linchpin of wildfire response—by $127 million. And last year, California’s electric utilities—whose power lines have sparked many of the state’s largest blazes—agreed to spend $5 billion over five years on safety measures.
Mediterranean countries haven’t experienced any mega blazes this year, with Portugal registering the lowest number of fires in a decade. It’s been a “lucky year” that will only make prevention tasks harder, Held said.
“Even if one year you don’t get any catastrophic fires, you’re still sitting on unburnt fuel,” Held said. “It’s like a time-bomb, it will burn sooner or later and the only question is when and under what conditions.”
— With assistance by David R Baker