Exploring the Mediterranean

On September 23rd, I departed Canada for Spain, with brief visits to Greece, Morocco, and France. During my month in the Mediterranean I have:

  • traveled with a group of ¨FireShepards¨ throughout Catalonia,
  • shadowed Spain’s foremost wildland firefighter and fire behavior analyst,

  • worked for the Pau Costa Foundation,
  • attended a conference on Resilient Landscapes,
  • educated elementary school children on the basics of wildfire management,
  • explored the fire-scarred ruins of Mati,
  • toured Casablanca at dusk and dawn
  • visited the Reina Sofia and the Museu de Picasso
  • attended an informative, post-fire community engagement seminar on the Torres de  LEspanyol fire


The FireShepards project is a knowledge exchange project faciliated through the Pau Costa Foundation aimed at educating and equiping shepards with wildfire expertise. Historically in Europe, rural peoples used far more of their available landscape than they do now, as many rural areas have been depopulated due to urban growth. The result is the loss of a land-use mosaic and overgrowth of fire-adapted vegetation, leading to large and intense wildfires.  The vision for the FireShepard program is to restore wildfire knowledge back to rural land-users and offer them incentives to graze their animals in particular, strategic areas for operational wildfire response. This process requires collaboration between firefighters (who identify and map the strategic areas), land owners (who own the area which have been identified), and the shepards (who graze and reduce fuel loads). During a wildfire, these areas serve as markers for reduced fire behavior and potential breaks for firefighters to perform efficient suppresison. The land owners benefit by reducing the flammability of their lands, and the shepards benefit as they  may have areas to graze freely and market their produce as part of the FireShepards program. Overall, the FireShepards program represents an innovative initiative to expand wildfire awareness and reduce future risk.

Marc Castellnou

Marc is by far the closest I have come to meeting a wildfire rockstar, as no else in the field (that I know of) has documentary filmmakers constantly following them. There is good reason for Marc´s fame, he is the foremost wildland fire thinker in all of Spain, and potentially all of Europe. He established the Group of Support for Forest Actions (GRAF), who are the wildland firefighters for all of Catalonia. He is also an expert when it comes to fire behavior, wildfire operations, prescribed burning, and planning; he does it all. I was extremely fortunate to spend a week shadowing Marc throughout his day-to-day, in which he:

  • Worked on wildfire maps of Bolivia
  • Toured the Torres de L´Espanyol fire with news crews, impacted community members, researchers, and others
  • Took a conference call with land managers in Ireland, who are becoming concerned about their wildfire susceptability (due to climate change)
  • Gave a group of Norwegian firefighters lessons in the field about how to understand fire behavior and forsee necessary operational steps.
  • Met with his GRAF leaders and sat down for a long lunch filled with laughter in the typical Catalonian way.
  • Marc in many ways is a mentor and leader for anyone interested in wildfire. It was fascinating to learn from him about the ways in which transperancy, credibility, knowledge, leadership, communication, and uncertainty apply to wildfire.

    Above: this photo represents the beautiful Catalonian country side. However, when I took a hike through it, it became apparent that it had not always been this way. The area was filled with human structures such as homes, terrace agricultural walls, and animal paddocks. It clearly used to be heavily influenced by human use, but has since become overgrown. While this may be beautiful for asethetic purposes, it poses a signficant risk for a continuous wildfire propagation. 

    Many of the conversations in Europe have revolved around the restoration of the rural economy to deal with wildfires. Essentially, if rural areas can return to their previous state with a mosaic of land-use, there will be less continuous fuel for wildfires. The picture above represents this mosiac. One of the researchers I spoke with was conducting studies on what types of mosaics - aggregated or dispersed- will best help to reduce the wildfire risk. So far her research is supporting disperesed models, in which areas of land-use are more spread out, despite being smaller parcels of land. However, Marc has made it clear that while restoration of a mosiac is important, it cannot solve the entire problem. Despite the low flammability of olive and agricultural operations, wildfires can move between areas of fuel by jumping and spotting. Therefore more management methods are necessary beyond just the expansion of land-use. Like all things relating to wildfires, there is no silver bullet.

    One of the most impactful experiences of my Euro-tour thus far, was my visit to Matí, Greece. In 2018, over 90 people perished in a wildfire that was hardly larger than 3000 acres. Poor development planning and the absence of an evacuation plan and emergency services led to many people being stuck in their vehicles while attempting to escape. Matí today is sombering. It feels like a ghost town, just as when I returned to Malibu during the Woolsey Fire amidst the evacuation. Despite the many hallowed out and abandonded buildings, I managed to find and speak with a few survivors. Their memories and wounds were still fresh. Many worried that this will happen again and little had been learned. They said the government had taken a more aggressive approach to wildfire response, but it sounded as if little was being done on the preventive side of things.

    As I write this, my home state of California is having its busiest October in recent history. I can only hope that we avoid a situation like Matí or another Paradise. However, I worry that like Matí we are learning little and only focusing on increasing our response.

    Canada Observations

    Since I have been in Canada, I have covered a significant amount of ground both with my feet and tires as well as my thinking. All throughout Alberta, up to the Northwest Territory, through the Continental Divide, and zigzagged across British Columbia I have accumulated a wide perspective of the vastness of this landscape. These travels, while seemingly random, had purpose, schedule, and meaning. This ping-pong course has been in the pursuit of seeking out the various mentalities and mindsets surrounding wildfires. Having only barely scraped the surface, I have spoken to structure and wildland firefighters, park and forest managers, prevention officers, threat specialists, municipal civic leaders, First Nation representatives, ecologists and other -ologists, homeowners and community champions, politicians, smokejumpers, protection consultants, and others. The results are several notebooks full of notes and surveys and muddled thoughts. 

    On Fire History:

    The fire history of western Canada is culmination of disturbance regimes determined by intermixing of climate, fuel, topography, and humans. Due to variation in climatic processes and topography, the formation of biogeoclimatic zones occurred. A biogeoclimatic zone is defined as “geographic area having similar patterns of energy flow, vegetation and soils as a result of a broadly homogenous macroclimate” or essentially similarities in plants, soils, and climates.  Zones interacted with biophysical and eco-cultural disturbances differently, as the frequency and severity of which these disturbances occurred. In many areas, wildfires are the predominant form of ecological disturbance that may spurn dynamic natural processes. The prevalence of wildfires varies because some areas may be more susceptible, i.e there are more ignitions from lightening or indigenous peoples, or there are significant fuel loads that may carry fires across a landscape. Wildfire disturbances gradually separated forests into two general life cycles,  “stand-replacing” and “stand-maintaining”, which has resulted some ecosystems at being resilient to fire and others being profound at regeneration after fire. To put this in context, much of Southern California chaparral types are stand-replacing as when there is a fire, everything is consumed and then grows back quickly. Whereas in the montane- Ponderosa Pine types of Colorado Springs, the large, old trees often have profound fire scars as they possess a resilience threshold to withstand fire. Other forest types, such as broadleaf, deciduous forest types maintain high levels of moisture and are proficient at reducing fires, but then are also proficient at regeneration as well. In Canada, both stand-replacing and stand-maintaining forest types saturate the landscape, and they often intermix. In forms such as the Boreal White and Black Spruce, the primary form of disturbance is crown fires which initiate a stand replacement. In the interior Douglas-fir and Larch forests, there is greater adaptability to fire, therefore resistance to stand-replacement.

    These ecosystems are driven and sustained by wildfire, which may have originated by lightening and aboriginal peoples. There can be no mistake that people on the land contributed natural fire to the environment and helped formulate the baseline fire regimes for their respective forests. Reliant on their surroundings for sustenance, objectives such as increasing available, fresh grazing areas for game, replacing decrepit berry bushels with the next generation, and maintaining travel corridors for people and animals, indigenous burning is deeply cultural and ecologically beneficial. While many nations had different structures for burning - family-based, unanimous, or matriarchal - knowledge surrounding fire effects became extensive: when to burn, how to move the fire around, what areas to avoid burning. The approach is a holistic ecosystem management one that looks at the entire landscape.

    The recent history of fire in Canada is a deviation from its past. European expansion into western areas brought with them ideals of Germany’s park-like forests devoid of fire. The management of these lands called for the removal of fire. Despite this, many ranchers and loggers continued to burn for decades, until societal and managerial concerns eventually suppressed this knowledge as well. E

    On the travel side of things, Canada has been fairly straightforward because of its numerous similarities to the U.S and the overall kindness of the people here. All of the stereotypes about Canadian civility turned out to be true, and yes: they really do obsess over Tim Horton’s (I still cannot figure out heavens why). 

    On the wildfire side, the project has focused on the dual approaches: proactive and reactionary methods. Proactive measures in this context refer to areas such as prescribed burning (active fire restoration), modified response (passive fire restoration), community protection and preparedness, and ongoing wildfire-related research to gain tools for the future. Reactionary methods are essentially just suppression - the hammer in the toolbox. 

    Guiding Principles for “More Fire on the Landscape”

    As wildfires have gained prominent media attention through significant celebrity fires, there has become increasing awareness that other steps to remediation may be necessary. The historic practices of wildfire management have created a multitude of complications that have exacerbated incident complexities, which are now being compounded by climate change. The dominant narrative in wildfire agencies, and in some sectors of the public, is to get “more fire on the landscape”. This term is dominant within the U.S and Canada, but its application is tangled and confusing. Who is responsible for putting fire on the landscape? How is it be put there? Who accepts the risks? After speaking with numerous specialists on the matter, I certainly don’t have an coherent answer, but here are some of the principles that have been made clear:

    1. Prescribed burning is a tool, not an objective. Active ignition is a practice that can help achieve goals such as risk reduction and ecological gain, and these are the paramount goals that must be achieved with or without burning. If prescribed burning doesn’t contribute towards these goals, other tools should be considered.

    2. To reduce risk, some degree of risk must be initially accepted. Whether prescribed burning or modified response are selected, agencies as well as the public must accept that fire will exist in their landscape at some point and its presence always carries unpredictable outcomes. By accepting risk posed by a prescribed or managed fire, there may be significant reductions in the possibility of an uncontrolled, unpredictable event. By tolerating risk, we may gain greater control over the volatility of our environment. 

    3. Right time, right place, right fire. When engaging in a prescribed burn, it is imperative to understand the ecological processes that are supported by different burns. History must be accounted for, as well as recognition that landscapes and climates have shifted. Decisions should be data-based to ensure proper application of fire.

    4. Burn to learn, learn to burn better. Knowledge surrounding burning has dissipated due to fire exlusion narratives. Those that possessed expertise on designing and burning cutblocks, broadcast landscape burns, and fire effects have been unable to pass their information on. As a result, the knowledge that does exist is highly concentrated. Taking steps forward may require an acceptance that application will enhance and spread with practice.

    5. Identify more areas where fire is accepted. This connects back to risk acceptance as larger areas for where fire may exist are an essential component to matching historical fire regimes. Updating wildfire management plans may be a crucial aspect of this as quick identification and assessment allows for decisions to be made with a long-term vision. Additionally, years of reduced resource expenditure and favorable climate (such as 2019) allow for opportunities to allow fire to exist while maintaining higher degree of control. We must take advantage of these years and have the plans in place to accommodate them.

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