The fight against forest fires: an inconvenient truth?
It is estimated that France, Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal spend a total of 2,500 million Euros annually in the fight against forest fires. Of this sum, more than 60% is allocated to cover costs related to suppressing fires, while only 40% is invested in targeted activities for prevention (much of which are also related to activities for extinguishing fires: creation of water points; firebreaks; etc.). Little is left for the management of forest combustibles (considering that forest covers around 30% in these countries) which would entail long-term, preventative measures addressing the root of the problem (the lack of management to reduce biomass quantity, due to low profitability).
This year we have seen that fire fighting can only manage a small part of the potential intensity of a forest fire when it is fanned by extreme weather conditions and spreads to an area with a high percentage of flammable combustibles (forest land).
Photo: Bombers, Generalitat de Catalunya.
As such, policies for putting out fires which are not combined with vegetation management to reduce combustibles and interrupt vegetation coverage, only serve, in the medium term, to increase the risk of major (and catastrophic) forest fires (which are responsible for 80% of burnt areas, while only constituting 2% of fires), such as those which have occurred this year in Spain. This is known as the fire paradox, and was exemplified previously in Catalonia after the 1986-1993 period which was followed by the great fires of 1994 and 1998, in Galicia after 1994-2005 and in Greece after 2001-2006.
What is surprising is that, currently, both the scientific community and the general population agree that long-term prevention and education (and communication) should be the main methods of tackling the problem of forest fires (a recent international study found that 80% of Catalans think that prevention and education should be fundamental to an efficient policy in the fight against wildfires). Nevertheless, this widely held opinion on the importance of prevention versus suppression is not reflected in the majority of policies adopted in Mediterranean countries while we witnessmedia debate focusing on the lack of aerial means and the coordination of fire-fighters.
Read more on the issue of forest fires by visiting EFI Publications:
Living with Wildfires: What Science Can Tell Us (2009) Birot, Y. (ed.)
Towards Integrated Fire Management - Outcomes of the European Project Fire Paradox (2010) Sande Silva, J., Rego, F., Fernandes, P. and Rigolot, E. (eds.)
Best Practices of Fire Use – Prescribed Burning and Suppression Fire Programmes in Selected Case-Study Regions in Europe (2010) Montiel, C., and Kraus, D. (eds.)More information: Marc Palahí, name.surname(at)efi.int
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