This spring a series of wildfires swept through central Portugal, the largest of which killed 64 people and burnt 29,693 hectares of scrubland and forests. The Pedrogao fire, as this historical event is now known, is only the latest instance of a type of extreme wildfire event that experts refer to as “megafires”.
Megafires are defined by their size and intensity but are more accurately described according to their extraordinary socioeconomic impacts in terms of both loss of human life and economic damage. Though discrepancies continue to arise regarding their scientific definition and key attributes, there is a growing concern about their ecological and socioeconomic effects as well as their potential connection to climate change. Indeed, some experts have begun to explore the idea that, due to climate change, megafire events will become more common in the near future, thus turning this sort of wildfire into the “new normal” for firefighters in many inflammable landscapes around the world. Portugal’s Pedrogao megafire is not an isolated incident. Many North American, Australian, Latin American and Southern European landscapes have experienced similar extreme fire events throughout the 2000s and 2010s. If megafires then represent the future of global wildfire, an important question emerges: is the present European fire governance institutional network adequately designed to manage the new megafire reality?
Understanding the structural causes of megafires: The megafire triangle
Each individual megafire event is a unique and singular story. However, when analysed aggregately, some general patterns emerge. Some refer to this pattern as the megafire triangle. The first side, so to speak, shaping the megafire triangle, is climate. Weather conditions favouring large wildfires are characterised by what firefighters call the 30-30-30 rule; that is, the simultaneous occurrence of surface temperatures equal to or higher than 30 degrees Celsius, a relative humidity lower than 30% and wind speeds of at least 30 kilometres an hour. This ideal wildfire weather is of course common in many European Mediterranean countries throughout the summer and early autumn months and indeed much of the vegetation growing in these landscapes has adapted to this traditional fire season, though only to events of a certain size and intensity that fit with past historical patterns driven by lower levels of landscape fuels due to human intervention in the landscape with which these species have co-evolved.
One big concern for fire experts is that this type of fire weather seems to be becoming more frequent. According to the IPCC’s 2014 Synthesis report, extreme weather events such as the drought and heat waves that preceded the Pedrogao fire are likely to become more frequent and unseasonal (occurring earlier or later in the year) as climate change progresses. This implies that in any given calendar year of the future we would expect to encounter more 30-30-30 days at uncharacteristic times of the year thus increasing the climate related risk of megafire occurrence. In fact, it has already been statistically demonstrated that the fire season has lengthened considerably in some fire-prone regions of the world, such as Mediterranean Europe.
The second structural factor shaping the megafire triangle is government forest and fire management policies. During much of the 20th century, developed and developing countries throughout the world adopted “fire exclusion” policies. Fire exclusion policies seek to contain wildfire spread and size by suppressing all fire events at the earliest possible stage of their appearance. These policies have led, for example, to the gradual reduction of the total burnt surface in Europe in the past decades. However, fire exclusion policies have also resulted in what European Union officials have called a “fire paradox”. By suppressing all fires of all sizes and intensities in all types of landscapes and vegetation (even those types of vegetation that are fire adapted) the fuels that would have otherwise burnt in many wildfire events accumulate providing ever more copious fuels for the next wave of megafire weather. In other words, by suppressing all fires all the time, fire managers have added more fuel to the landscape ultimately making the problem more difficult to manage. Hence the fire paradox; the end result of successful fire exclusion policies is the so-called “firefighting trap” in which more and more financial and human resources are needed in order to maintain control over increasingly more fire-prone and fuel-loaded landscapes.
The third and final structural factor shaping the megafire triangle is land use. Most people in developed and developing societies used to, until very recently, live and work in rural areas. In the pre-industrial past there was considerable pressure on the land for all sorts of intricate and often interconnected traditional agricultural, livestock and forestry activities. This resulted in a thoroughly managed, humanised landscape in which most forms of vegetation and animal life were domesticated and food production was maximised. In this pre-industrial past, the fuels that could stoke wildfires were minimal due to intense and constant human management of the landscapes. This centuries-long tradition of territorial management came to an end rather abruptly as a result of industrialisation. As Europeans migrated to cities the countryside was abandoned and fuels, therefore, began to accumulate in the abandoned agricultural, pastoral and forested lands of Europe and elsewhere.
To compound this trend in rural population loss, during the last few decades better transportation technologies have allowed for some of these abandoned areas to become an attractive residence for urban populations wishing to escape city life and live “closer to nature” or isolated villages of ex-rural farmers who no longer work or live off the land. Consequently more and more people have begun living in isolated, single home residential developments in formerly rural landscapes, such as forests, where they would have never lived during the pre-industrial past or where fuels would have been controlled when these landscapes were intensely managed. These territories are known to fire experts as the “wildland urban interface” (WUI) and they are notoriously difficult to defend from wildfires because the homes built in them are in the middle of the pyre, so to speak, adding more non-vegetational inflammable fuels to an already fuel-loaded landscape. Many of the people that died in the Pedrogao megafire were, in fact, living in a WUI without even knowing it.
European fire governance and the megafire challenge
Future European fire governance must address all three structural dimensions of the megafire triangle or face the drastic human and economic consequences. Fortunately, a lot of progress has been made in the last few decades in terms of scientific understanding of the drivers of the megafire phenomenon. Politically speaking, however, we have only now started to design strategies to transform the obsolete forest policies and atavistic cultural attitudes towards fire that made sense in an industrial era that, at least in Europe, has come to an end. Unfortunately, the task at hand is much more difficult than it appears at first sight, involving all sorts of transformations, including that of some of the most deeply held values of how we Europeans view our relationship with the natural world.
One of the big concerns of the global fire management community regarding megafires is that they seem to reinforce, or feed into, the apparently unstoppable progression of climate change. As greenhouse gas emissions increase due to fossil fuel combustion, the planet gets warmer and in some areas, like the Mediterranean, also drier. As mentioned previously, this is already resulting in longer fire seasons. Many tree and shrub species in the Mediterranean, as we have seen, are fire adapted but only to certain kinds of fires with which they have co-evolved historically. Will the existing vegetation be able to adapt to recurring, increasingly frequent megafires without our help? The answer is “probably not” in which case we would be aggravating the climate change problem since trees and shrubs are an important carbon sink taking carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it in their aboveground stems and underground root systems. This can only happen, of course, if trees can survive regular disturbances such as wildfires that inevitably will take place and there is growing scientific evidence that with megafires this is not always the case. Sometimes if the fires are too big, intense and frequent trees don’t regenerate and are substituted by grasslands or shrubs which do not sequester carbon as efficiently. So to make a long story short, reducing greenhouse gas emissions would be an initial and encouraging first step in addressing the megafire triangle, but, in order to rise to the challenge, we would also need to intervene on the other two sides shaping the megafire triangle.
Fire exclusion policies, particularly in Southern Europe where the megafire problem is more prescient, are in serious need of reform. The main obstacle to reform, however, is not technical but political and that is precisely what makes the reform so difficult. Fire exclusion has become ecologically and economically unsustainable though politically it continues to make a lot of sense. Fire suppression has become one of the main sources of public employment in some rural areas of Southern Europe as well as a powerful industry which, in the case of Spain, bills over €1,000 million a year. So there is a powerful economic incentive for politicians, in other words, to keep fire exclusion policies in place. Fire suppression jobs and a high public budget for fire suppression translates into votes and ultimately political power.
The alternative to fire exclusion policies is preventive fuel reduction treatments based on prescribed burning. Fire needs to be re-introduced, as many experts argue, ecologically and socioeconomically as what it once was in the pre-industrial past: a powerful tool for ecosystem and territorial management. Fire managers in Europe need to therefore implement prescribed burning as the cheapest strategy to reduce landscape fuels and create more fire-resilient, ecologically healthier landscapes. This can only be done however if state resources are shifted away from suppression to prevention, a tough act to follow for civil servants and politicians that have been telling the general population for 100 years through costly public information campaigns that all fires are disasters that need to be fought at all costs.
From the point of view of land use, the obstacles to meaningful reform are equally complex. Contemporary European, and indeed Western, land use policies have been shaped by two 19th century cultural valuations of humanity’s relation with nature that continue to exercise their hypnotic spell over urban populations. One is the “degradationist” myth: the idea that much of nature, because of human activity, is now highly degraded and therefore needs to be redeemed and liberated from all types of human intervention. Though this may be the case in many natural systems around the world it is no longer the case for many forest ecosystems throughout Europe. The other dominant, widely held belief in Europe, which complements the previous perception, is the “wilderness” myth. Many urban Europeans believe that nature is at its purest when it is left alone to its own devices with the least possible human presence and activity. These two dominant valuations of nature have led politicians, civil servants and the urban population that makes up to the bulk of their constituency, to design and support all sorts of land uses that will prove incompatible with the upcoming megafire era. Forest managers during the 19th and 20th centuries supported, for instance, afforestation and reforestation policies to not only augment timber production for industry, but also restore what was perceived to be a degenerated, deforested European landscape. However, dense tree formations growing under closed canopy conditions are not necessarily a healthy or even “natural” forest, particularly in Mediterranean Europe, as many paleoecologists have demonstrated with their research on Europe’s historical landscapes.
Life in the WUI is yet another form of interacting with nature that may be ecologically questionable in the megafire era. Ironically, in an attempt to live closer to the “wilderness”, human beings are invading landscapes which they would have never occupied in the past, placing their lives inadvertently at risk, while also engaging in paradoxically ecologically unsustainable lifestyles with high carbon footprints. Our distorted and obsolete vision of nature as a “wild” environment is also resulting in forms of land use – which in many cases are incentivised actively by European Union rural development policies – such as ecotourism and large forested hunting estates that, in addition to creating very little socioeconomic development, at least when job creation is considered, thrive on abandoned, homogeneous, “re-wilded” megafire prone landscapes.
In order to tackle the third dimension of the megafire triangle we must develop, in sum, a more complex vision of our relationship with the real, not idealised, humanised nature that we have inherited that is the origin of our present natural world. In order to do so, the European Union must design policies that make rural economies and societies productive so that these landscapes are once again actively managed. Unfortunately, though some of the rhetoric coming out of Brussels seems to espouse this more useful vision from the point of view of fire governance, its policies still don’t. Large estates with, in many cases, absentee landlords continue to be incentivised over smaller family operations. Farmers are still being encouraged to abandon their fields and pastures and subsidised to plant trees, often with highly inflammable exotic species as was the case in Pedrogao, in the name of both climate change mitigation and seldom profitable forest industries. More often than not farmers, shepherds and forest workers continue to be gently nudged away from their traditional lifestyles in exchange for subsidised lifestyles designed to turn them into purported caretakers of landscapes that they have been compelled to abandon. Let’s work, then, towards a European Union fire governance model that can rise up to the megafire challenge before this idealised, obsolete 19th century vision of a “wild”, “regenerated”, densely forested European countryside devoid of human intervention burns to the ground in the next round of megafires.