Wildfires spawn fear in humans. The impetus for massive amounts of funding devoted to wildfire aircraft, fire engines, and other technologies is the deep internal sentiment that we are helpless in the face of such force. In the last few decades, society has made its feelings known about wildfire and did its best to do away with it. How vengeful the outcome has been! As wildfire paradigms continue to shift, more and more countries are exposed to the environmental-inferno phenomena and their fear is palpable. This is the case in northern European nations – Norway, Sweden, Finland, UK, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, France, and others, who out of concern for increasing wildfire exposures are tittering towards the “firefighter trap”. The “trap” entails a perception that more firefighting technology and resources will solve the long-term wildfire issue, when in reality it is a short term solution that increases further risks and costs. Does this not fly in the face of everything we have learned about fires? Since our elementary days we have been institutionalized to think that fires belong solely to fire departments, and in the event of kitchen fires, this fact remains. But as the human relationship with the planet continues to challenge our environments resistance to change, landscape level fires escape the capacity of the red trucks and the men and women in yellow turnouts. The northern European countries fear the eventual “megafires” and their response mirrors the erroneous decisions made by other before
The story is quite different in southern Europe, whom has been dealing with fire challenges for decades (in reality much longer, but in the modern sense pertaining to rural depopulation of the 20th century) and has compiled abundant research, culture, structure, and lessons learned. One Incident Commander from Catalonia identified the “lack of knowledge in the north leads to fear, which leads to resource expenditures, and everyone falls in the trap”. She went on to point out that no one in the south of Europe is prepared for the speed and intensity that wildfires will continue to gain, but they have deduced that further reliance on firefighting will only exacerbate the cost.
The south of Europe has a long history with fire, and recently the relationship has been a painful one. In 2017, the world observed some of the fastest and most intense wildfires sweep across Portugal in two separate incidents, as they claimed over 100 lives and decimated local economies and ecosystems. In one day, aligned with unstable atmospheric conditions and the end of agriculture burn bans, over 500 separate fires began and completely overwhelmed Portuguese firefighting capacities. The following year, Greece experienced its horrible tragedy in Mati, when in less than two hours, a fire began and levelled an entire village taking with it a significant portion of the population. The wounds of loss are real, burns on the landscape may become overgrown but the memories are seared. This was clear during my visits to both of these towns. In some areas of the region, nothing has been done and the tragedies will continue as the fuel returns with great fervour and homes are rebuilt as they were before. In others, innovative and advanced approaches are being made
In Portugal, the creation of the Agency for Integrated Management of Rural Fire (AGIF) provides one of the most innovative attempts to streamline wildfire proficiencies in an expedited manner. AGIF was formed following the fatal wildfire season of 2017 after the inability of local firefighting organizations to coordinate and respond in a unified approach, as well as the lack of awareness of the public to their risk exposure to fire. The Integrated Management aspect of the agency is a cutting edge approach as it seeks to engage the wildfire issue in multiple fronts, throughout all levels of governance. It is an organization dedicated to operations coordination, public engagement, policy implementation, prescribed burn advancement, and wildfire research development. Under the direct control of the President, the agency is set up for bureaucratic expediency and aims to efficiently coordinate all efforts pertaining to wildfire throughout the country. This is a unique concept that may prove to be a model, or at least model qualities, for other nations to look to as an alternative to increasing firefighting resource expenditures.
The story in Catalonia is a similar one, through trial-and-error and experiential learning, innovative ideologies and approaches to wildfires are starting to grow. Both heavily influenced by the mind of Marc Castellnou, the Pau Costa Foundation and the GRAF teams of the Catalonian Bombers (state-level firefighting organization). Pau Costa Foundation is an organization formed out of tragedy and is named after one of several GRAF firefighters lost in a burnover incident in 2009. The PCF serves as a knowledge exchange hub for topics pertaining to wildfire and crisis management, and fire ecology. In a sector that often gripes about the widening gap between researchers and practitioners, PCF has erected bridges throughout Europe and even globally. Driven by many energetic, young researchers and professionals, PCF is essentially the start-up of the wildfire world and are helping to strategically advance and distribute wildfire knowledge. On the operations arm, GRAF teams encompass a specialized wildland fire section of the civil fire protection services. By making the job of fighting forest fires a responsibility of the civil protection unit, budgets for land management are free from the exhaustive burden that is crippling the US Forest Service
As climate change alters the course of humanity and the dynamics of our landscapes, more countries will become susceptible to the societal damages of wildfires. The writing is on the wall, and there are many that have seen it and the fear is palpable. The E.U., influenced largely by northern European nations, has increased resource allocations for wildfire operations and reinforced rhetoric surrounding the “firefighter trap”. However, there are those in the north that are calling for introspection and to evade the pitfalls experienced by other countries before them. On a quick week trip to Cardiff for a conference and workshop, I was fortunate to meet the knowledge, philosophies, and methods to advance proactive and integrated approaches.
During the English and Welsh Wildfire Forum (EWWF) and EFI SURE Workshop on IFM, my understanding of European fire management grew by leaps and bounds. The week included many conversations and presentations that seek to build out and forwards, from participants from England, Wales, France, Serbia, Poland, Germany, South Africa, Spain, the U.S, and Australia. The topics ranged from a diverse spectrum of topics including: Marc Castellnou’s philosophical call for a redefinition of how we view wildfires (one based upon total energy released and with our future landscapes in mind; potentially an entire blog post on its own), new decision-support tools for improving evacuations (PERIL) and WUI risk assessment, lessons on understanding the relationship of plants and fire, research results of post fire water quality, community-based initiatives to improve post-fire ecosystems, insights from wildfire insurance and recovery experiences, and others. Every night, I went to sleep with a heavy brain (possibly influenced by conference-social beers). It was as if I spent the entire week studying for an intense exam, and I guess this could be called, “learning”.