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Firefighting alone is not enough to fight fires

How to tackle the remaining forest fires? The author proposes that long-term policy measures are needed that go beyond reactive firefighting, which can aggravate the problem.



After years with little area affected by forest fires, last year's drought, coupled with successive heat waves since mid-May, have led to a series of serious fires. These have shocked society and sparked considerable social debate.

Unlike in previous years, the cause of these fires has been largely unnoticed. Perhaps because the main fires have been caused by lightning and agricultural machinery at harvest time, or in preparation for reforestation.

Fires are the only catastrophe that is spread over time. This generates considerable social tension: the population does not understand that a modern state is incapable of dealing with them immediately and definitively. Earthquakes, floods, attacks and accidents occur in a very short period of time in which it is understood that no action can be taken, whereas a large fire can burn for a week.

After a month and a half of fires, on 1 August the government approved a royal decree law amending the forestry law, which has generated divergent opinions on both procedural and substantive aspects. The former criticises the absence of a consultative process with the Autonomous Communities, which have the powers, as had been the usual practice to date. In any case, this regulation will have to be validated by the Congress of Deputies within the next 30 days in order to become fully valid or, failing that, it will have to be processed as an ordinary bill.

However, the most relevant issue, and one that ties in with the intense social debate of the past few weeks, is the limitation on the substance of the matter. For a decade now, different fire specialists have been insisting that, although they understood that the natural response to fires was extinguishing them, limiting themselves to this entails a much greater risk in the medium and long term.

They have since reminded us that, if we ignore the state of forests and forest and surrounding land, fires will be impossible to tackle in the long run. The reason? Because their continuity and fuel density will impede the action of the extinguishing means, as they exceed by far their technical and personnel safety limits.

Moreover, they remind us of the firefighting paradox: the more efficient the firefighting services are, the more they will be able to extinguish almost all the easy fires, but when the worst circumstances, including simultaneity, combine, a few fires will become catastrophic. This will call into question the investment in fire suppression.

In short, relying on firefighting is a reactive and insufficient response that only postpones and aggravates the problem.

Spain has been very efficient in this first phase and today has an extraordinary fire-fighting system comparable to the best in the world, in close international collaboration. Investment is comparable to or above that of the United States in terms of cost per square kilometre or in relation to GDP. C

The Leon-based company Tecnosylva, which advises several US states, proposes action on two main fronts and a complementary one. Thanks to fire modelling and the fact that in each area there is a predominant type of critical fire determined by the orography and prevailing winds, in the event of a major fire, the so-called strategic management points are identified where the fire loses strength and can be attacked with greater chances of success and can spread to new areas, increasing its destructive effect.

On the other hand, by adjusting the loads of fine fuel available to burn, especially necromass (dead biomass), the intensity of the fire is reduced, which would allow the fire-fighting forces to fight the fire directly. In addition, the provision of a road network in good condition and with dual access would be of great help. These actions would reinforce the resilience of the landscape, in the first case by significantly reducing vegetation by recovering crops and grazing areas, in the second by recovering forest management with thinning, pruning, thinning, rewilding and regeneration, as well as the periodic use of prescribed burning, complemented whenever possible by the entry of livestock.

How to increase resilience to climate change

These actions would also increase resilience to the effects of climate change such as droughts, insects, gales and heavy snowfalls, which, with the necromass they bring, increase the risk of large fires.

The products obtained would reduce our energy dependence, generate rural employment to combat depopulation, strategic biomaterials to contribute to the fight against climate change and high quality meat without greenhouse gas emissions. All of these synergies are often underestimated.

These actions would also increase resilience to the effects of climate change such as droughts, insects, gales and heavy snowfalls, which, together with the necromass they provide, increase the risk of major fires.

The products obtained would reduce our energy dependence, generate rural employment to combat depopulation, strategic biomaterials to contribute to the fight against climate change and high quality meat without greenhouse gas emissions. All of these synergies are often underestimated.

To achieve this, action is needed on at least three fronts: sufficient public funding, tackling smallholdings and active management. Forests have not been part of the CAP, which, due to the inertia of the past, is allocated a very high percentage to certain crops and types of livestock. In proportion to their production, it leaves the least productive and most disadvantaged areas, precisely the most forested and mountainous areas which should, paradoxically, be the first recipients.

The State, after the transfers, has disengaged itself from forestry funding and the larger Autonomous Communities, with more forest resources and less population, are faced with a complex funding challenge in which the disparity in GDP/ha forestry is 1/71 between Autonomous Communities, rising to over 1/300 at European level. In fact, it is European regulations that impose considerable standards of biodiversity or water protection without significant economic compensations.

On the other hand, forest management is subject to considerable interventionism, justified by the generation of vital environmental services such as erosion prevention and water regulation, climate change mitigation, protection of reservoirs and infrastructures, biodiversity and landscapes, which should logically generate income in line with the "polluter pays" and "decontaminator gets paid" principle.

In environmental economics it is understood that, in order to overcome market failures, externalities must be integrated through economic mechanisms and, obviously, this should not only occur in the case of negative externalities (pollution) but also in the case of positive externalities (renewable natural resources). In fact, the Law on Forestry already provides for this in article 65 and the Law on Climate Change and Energy Transition includes a mandate to implement it, which expired last May. Failure to do so means foisting the generation of environmental services on a small social minority living in the most forested and mountainous areas, generating a pernicious effect, accelerating depopulation and, from the perspective of territorial equity, unacceptable.

It should be remembered that Spanish forests belong to 2 million small family forest owners, who account for two thirds of the total, and to thousands of small local authorities, neighbourhood councils and small town councils, especially in mountain areas, which account for 28%, with only 5% corresponding to the Autonomous Regions.

Large areas of our country are characterised by smallholdings which, if in agriculture prevents modern management in forestry due to its lower income, completely stops it, the problem being particularly acute in the northwest and the Mediterranean area, requiring ambitious legislative changes for its equitable and effective resolution. The most critical part of forest abandonment occurs precisely in smallholding areas.

Finally, a large part of biodiversity conservation legislation suffers from a passive approach that is ill-adapted to the dynamic reality of formations and the strong cultural imprint of landscapes over millennia. An update is therefore needed that recognises and favours management for resilience, combining the different functions without a priori and with resilience as a priority, because if they end up burning, little will be left to protect.

In the past, many policies have acted in a reactive manner, whether in social or health policy issues, demonstrating that it was far more efficient to act in a comprehensive manner that prioritises addressing the underlying challenges and only complementarily responding to emergencies. It is contradictory, however, that in these other areas the more advanced and progressive response is linked to tackling the root causes, while in the case of fires the alignment is paradoxically the opposite, revealing a considerable lack of empathy between the environmental world of the urban matrix and the rural world. This is another underlying cause that the fires highlight and that will have to be overcome.

Topics wildfires
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