The Recovery Process

Standing on a charred hill in the Catalonian countryside, the color of our t-shirts contrasted strongly with the blackened landscape that we were there to discuss and come to understand. Crowded around a cork board held by rotating members of the group, diagrams of fire behavior were shown to help us visualize the spread of the fire that consumed and chewed through the Portuguese oaks and Aleppo pines that were now almost unidentifiable. Maps and tactics were presented for us to conceptualize where the firefighters had attempted to conduct burn outs on the run, some successful and others not so. At the bottom of the valley was the only color visible beside the blue of the sky and our clothing, where a green olive grove stood alone. Once the valley had been filled with them, only to be abandoned and replaced by the oaks and pines, and which had now transformed into dark skeletons. Those in the group spoke of how the ecosystem around us may be shifting to an unknown equilibrium.

The disaster management process can essentially be broken down into 4 (or 5) key principles. The Sendai Framework, created by the U.N in 2015, is intended to provide governance systems the overarching process to prepare, handle, and recovery after significant disaster events. It includes four primary “Priorities for Action” for disaster risk reduction: 1) Understanding disaster risk, 2) Strengthening disaster risk governance to manage disaster risk, 3) Investing in disaster risk reduction for resilience, and 4) Enhancing disaster preparedness for effective response and to “Build Back Better” in recovery, rehabilitation, and reconstruction. The realization of these priorities are based upon the proper and diligent collection and distribution of information, integration and exchange of multiple types of local, or indigenous knowledge with scientific knowledge, the maintenance of cross-disciplinary relationships and communication, and then the application and constant re-evaluation of plan-to-practice. The Sendai Framework is the U.N’s 10,000 foot view of how governments should orient themselves to address natural hazard and it offers generalizations for best practices and functions.

In application to wildfire disaster risk management, the Sendai Framework has been converted into the 5 R’s of Integrated Fire Management. These include: Review, Risk Reduction, Readiness, Response, and Recovery. These R’s include every single tool that can be utilized to reduce the risk of significant social and ecological damage from wildfire. Review refers to the collection of information that may be pertinent to understanding wildfire risk, such as an area’s fire history, agricultural practices, cultural histories, ecology, topography, etc, etc. Risk reduction encompasses all things related to wildfire prevention and mitigation, so things such as prescribed burning, community education, wildfire management plans, fuels management, and so on. Readiness and Response entail the recruitment, training, and subsequent deployment of firefighting resources to deal with an incident. Recovery pertains to the ecological and social remediation procedures that follow high severity wildfires to reduce the lasting negative impacts and improve the governance system for the future. Currently, Readiness and Response dominant the entire process and consume almost all of the funding allocated as firefighting operations are the primary form of handling wildfires; there are little steps taken before and after an incident. During a conference I attended in Madrid, Peter Moore from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) described the 5 R’s and how prioritization of the R’s must shift so that governments are less reliant on Readiness and Response and increase financial and human resources to planning and remediation steps.

Photo from Madrid conference (Resilient Landscapes to face Catastrophic Wildfires). Pictured are the former PM’s of Spain (Felipe Gonzalez) and Finland (Esko Aho) discussing the importance of strong rural economies to manage forests and wildfires.

During the last few days of my time in Europe, I made a pitstop in Wales for the England and Wales Wildfire Forum (EWWF) as well as a one-day workshop put on by the European Forestry Institute (EFI). The Sustaining and Enhancing Resilience of European Forests (SURE) workshop was devoted to Integrated Fire Management (IFM) and the steps devoted to prevention, readiness, response, and recovery (the review portion did not receive its own designation). Four big bulletin boards were set up to represent each step, and within each board there were three sections devoted to actions at three levels: Forest/Stand, Enterprise, and Society/Policy. These levels were meant to establish the increasing realms that ideas and actions occur within. The workshop centred on identifying various challenges, existing tools, and novel concepts that can be used at the various IFM stages and at the different realms. Take an idea such a simple idea like FireWise (creation of defensible spaces around homes and structures) and it would get written on a post card and slapped on the “prevention” bulletin board within the “society” section. Within the workshop there were representatives from all over Europe, U.S, and South Africa, so we filled the boards rather rapidly. Here is a photo:

Wildfires leave lasting memories that may persist far longer than their impressions on the landscapes. Their effects on communal and individual psyches can remain for a lifetime of anyone that has experienced serious loss or traumatic stress. These communities and individuals are often left with little outlets for their numerous questions. Sometimes they can turn into anger and accusations that further erode relationships and undermine trust. Largely blame will be directed towards public institutions; the very organizations that are tasked with preventing and addressing the risk when it inevitably returns. In Catalonia, maintaining accountability and transparency were priorities for the fire management organization – GRAF – and in the aftermath of the Ribera D’Ebre fire, firefighters, civic leaders, and researchers came together to explain to the public what had happened, why it occurred, and various approaches to remediate the threat’s return.

An event that included lectures and field visits was held to systematically walk through the events leading up to the fire, the firefighting operations and decisions that were made, and the societal mechanisms that are driving wildfire trends. It began with a technical explanation of the specific weather and fuel conditions that occurred on July 26th, 2019 and the influences that would drive the fire for five days to a final size of 4000 ha. A fire behaviour analyst would describe in great detail the topographic and weather features that pertain to fire in the area, and express the expectation that these conditions will occur in years to come. Next, the incident commander (also the fire behaviour analyst) outlined the initial tactics and decisions that were made to curtail the fire in a specific direction, and subsequently limit the fire’s final size and impact. The attending public were shown fire modelling maps that reflected previous fires, the fires actual size and the potential spread models that could have occurred with different decisions, and the prospective fuel break the now burned area offered the region. The new perimeter disrupted fuel continuity and offers potential relief for the next 15-20 years. Lastly, the town’s mayor spoke to describe the impact the incident had had on the community and called for support to continue efforts to boost resiliency for both the forest and rural area.

Photo of an abandoned home in the Catalonian countryside, less than 10km from my apartment. Rural areas are filled with these dilapidated structures, and the unmanaged land becomes overgrown. There are little efforts to track down the individuals or families that still hold the deeds.

Next, we went to the field to survey the burned area and give the necessary context. Everyone, approximately 70 people in total, loaded up in vehicles and we caravanned out to the site of the fire. We drove to several locations where the IC described where various tactics had been made and why. It offered an on-the-ground perspective for people to conceive different decisions, and the prospective fuel break the now burned area offered the region. The new perimeter disrupted fuel continuity and offers potential relief for of the operational and logistical challenges of directing the fire. In addition to hearing about the firefighting strategy, researchers from forestry research institutions described ongoing studies to understand various social and ecological mechanisms that are making the landscape more susceptible to future fire.

The big topic, as in all of southern Europe, is the impacts of rural depopulation and human migration to urban settings. In a brief summary, the Mediterranean region is experiencing greater fire severities and shorter frequencies due to the fact that there is less human activity, interaction, and management with the landscape. No longer is the countryside full of farmers, ranchers, and their practices, as many have moved to metropolitan centres due to depleted economic viability in rural areas. The result is significant, continuous fuel accumulation that has no one to manage it. This allows fires to grow bigger and stronger, with eventual detrimental impacts. The loss of a land-use mosaic leads in an unmanaged landscape in which fire roams unbounded.

In the middle of the charred landscape, members of the community were asking deep, probing questions and exchanging rapidly digressing debates about how to best curb future wildfire potentials. The conversation orbited the premise of increasing resiliency – both socially and ecologically – to increasing fire. For about two hours, in the Spanish sun, we discussed various forest management practices and objectives that should be utilized to reduce fuel loads and fire intensities, and how to increase the economic value of Mediterranean forests so that there are greater incentives to manage the risk. Ideas like increasing the amount of land dedicated to vineyards and olive groves, and market preferences for local timber and fuel-grazing livestock. Selectively buying local products was a proposed solution to restore a semblance of rural land-use economic activity. Community members also hotly debated the topics around public forests, private utilities, who pays for prevention and who benefits – concepts reminiscent of the debates being held in California.

Ultimately the recovery process following a disaster, such as a wildfire, offers a crucial and often overlooked step in resolving our human connection with the environment that surrounds us. What happened? Why did it happen? What can do we do in the future to change the course of these events? “Never waste a good disaster”, a quote from the Madrid conference, may be a coarse ideology but the reality of our world is that natural hazard is rising and it is imperative that we apply the lessons from every tragedy to change our course. Action must be quick, windows for action are short. In the case of wildfires, action must entail the sponsorship of research to understand lasting ecological, hydrological, and atmospheric impacts of mega-fires, and we must construct new platforms to channel emotional experiences into meaningful policies. At the end of the SURE workshop, I proposed a new tool, an Impacted Communities Support Network, intended to compile survivor experiences, aid those navigating the exhausting recovery process, and to create a political voice for wildfire governance growth.

Teaching primary school children about land management, the firefighting “trap”, and the future of wildfires with Pau Costa Foundation

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