Newsletter XVII - Report on the session on Extreme Wildfire Events at the European Climate Change Adaptation Conference 2019

A Science-Practice parallel session entitled “Extreme wildfire events: addressing the challenges faced by national governance and management systems across Europe”, was held on 29 May 2019, as part of the European Climate Change Adaptation Conference 2019 (ECCA2019) in Lisbon.

 Extreme wildfire events call for integrated fire management (IFM) that tackles the socio-economic, climate and environmental roots of these “mega-fires”, through more balanced land use management, and considering the interaction among fire prevention and preparedness, fire detection and response, post-fire restoration and adaptation. The aim of the “Extreme wildfires” session at ECCA2019 was to take stock of innovative solutions and successful case studies across Europe that demonstrate how to prevent and recover from mega-fires, and to enable an exchange between the key actors and partners to address barriers in governance and management that often impede an IFM strategy.

 Several key points were highlighted. Practitioners are calling for a better managed landscape, and integration of prevention and emergency response, requiring integrated fire, forest and landscape management. Engagement of people in preparedness and prevention is needed, for acceptance and ownership of solutions. Experience from developing countries, where fires have lower impacts, suggest that people need to maintain a close connection with the landscape. 

Research gaps include how multiple fires (and mega-fires) interact and create their own weather systems, and how to use this knowledge in emergency response. Other topics are dynamic adaptation measures that take account of the evolving nature of fire risk in Europe (spatial and temporal trends), and how to incentivise people to return to the countryside, while ensuring joint fire management (from prevention and preparedness to restoration).

 Four key factors lead to extreme wildfires: expansion of forests due to depopulation and land abandonment; increased fuel loads and fuel continuity; high number of anthropogenic fire ignitions; and higher temperatures and less rainfall. Long-term fire prevention strategies should make forests more resilient to climate change, while the vision needs to be economically viable, and consider forest multi-functionality. To tackle Mediterranean wildfires, for example, a forest-based bio-economy offers new opportunities, by ensuring ecosystem services while reducing fires.

 Some key messages emerged. The social dimension of fire must be addressed, by involving people in prevention and preparedness. In Portugal, economic and social factors are a real issue with wildfires, with a lack of population in the country’s interior. Land must be profitable for people to manage it. Simply imposing solutions creates resistance. Implementing an IFM approach is a long-term (decadal) work. 

With climate change, the Mediterranean region will be affected by more intense, longer heatwaves and droughts, and more mega-fires. Creative approaches are needed to bring people and infrastructure (e.g. hospitals, public services) back to rural areas. During Portugal’s economic crisis, due to a lack of jobs in cities, and helped by EU funds, young people returned to rural areas. With economic growth that trend is reversing. The perception of rural areas must change. The frequency of disasters relative to the electoral cycle affects the likelihood of action on wildfires. Regarding spatial planning policy, fragmentation of land ownership is an issue, with many private landowners in Portugal and Spain, for example.

 Speakers at the session were: Francisco Castro-Rego (Higher Institute of Agronomy, Technical University of Lisbon); Inazio Martinez de Arano (European Forest Institute); Peter Moore (FAO, Forestry Department); Marc Castellnou (Fire Service of Catalunya); Athanasios Sfetsos (National Centre of Scientific Research “Demokritos”, Greece); Fantina Tedim (University of Porto); Inês Vieira (University of Lisbon); Antonio Soares (National Association of Rural Owners, Portugal).

 A 2018 science-policy report by the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Research and Innovation (DG RTD), critically reviews EU-funded research on forest fires and explores policies adaptation to face the new challenges imposed by extreme wildfire events (see web-link below).

Nicolas Faivre*,Maddalena Dali**, 
Karolina Kalinowska***

European Commission, Directorates-General for 
(*) Research and Innovation (RTD); (**) Climate Action (CLIMA); (***) European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO)

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