Thursday, September 21

How to adapt to the new reality of fires

40 million years ago, Antarctica was covered with great forests. And 25,000 years ago, half of Europe was covered in ice and the other half was cold steppes. Thanks to paleontology, today we know that the vegetation of the whole world has been changing as climatic changes have been happening. I already said it Humboldtvegetation and climate are linked.

If now, with our climate inaction, we have accepted that the climate changes, we must also accept that the vegetation changes. It is naive to want to conserve the vegetation of the 20th century with the climate of the 21st century. Likewise, forest management in the 21st century cannot be like that of the 20th century, when the climate was less arid.

The great forest fires

the big fires do not occur for a single cause. They are produced by coincidence of ignitions in periods of drought and adverse weather conditions (heat waves, wind), in areas with continuous and easily flammable vegetation. These areas are often bushland and vegetation in early stages after rural abandonment (including young forests) or dense plantations not managed properly.

Climate change affects the equation because it extends the season prone to fires, exacerbate droughtsincreases plant mortality (and dry biomass) and increases the frequency of favorable weather conditions for fires (for example, heat waves).

But the great increase in fires that has occurred in the recent history of Spain has been independent of climate change, and mainly associated with rural abandonment. The decrease in agriculture, grazing and wood harvesting, and the lack of management in forest plantations, generate more continuous and homogeneous landscapes where fire spreads easily. In these landscapes, the relative role of climate in fires increases as we let climate change play out.

The vegetation that will appear after recurrent droughts and fires will be different than today, because many species may not be adapted to these new climate and fire regimes. Presumably the new vegetation will be less dense and less forested, and with changes in species composition.

We can let the droughts and fires adapt the passages to the new climate. The problem is that these large fires can have social and economic consequences. An alternative is to anticipate the fires.

What can we do?

To avoid these great fires that harm society, we must adapt our landscape and our behavior to the new environmental conditions. This includes creating landscapes that are more resilient to the coming climate and fire regime. To do this, we can implement strategies such as the following:

1. Generate heterogeneous landscapes

Discontinuities in the landscape and agroforestry mosaics reduce fire spread. This is especially important in areas close to human populations. There are various strategies to achieve this goal, for example:

All these tools are not mutually exclusive; they can be combined according to the different socio-economic and terrain characteristics. Certainly, stimulating the rural world is easy to say, especially from the urban world. But in Spain, for example, it is not clear that there is enough population willing to return to rural life to generate a significant change in the landscape. Perhaps an immigration policy that offered this possibility to people who arrive in search of better conditions than those found in their countries of origin could help.

2. Learn to live with fires

Eliminating fires from our landscapes is impossible and counterproductive, especially in the context of climate change. The management challenge is to create conditions that generate both ecologically and socially sustainable fire regimes.

Focusing fire management policies solely on suppression can lead to large and intense fires. It is more sustainable to have many small, low-intensity fires than a few large, intense fires.

To achieve these objectives, it is necessary to professionalize the actors involved in the prevention and extinction of forest fires. They are the ones who can generate sustainable fire regimes, but on many occasions they work in precarious conditions.

3. Minimize and take risks

We must avoid building homes and infrastructures in areas with highly flammable Mediterranean forests and minimize the wildland-urban interface. This not only reduces the danger to people and infrastructure, it also reduces ignitions. The mechanisms to achieve this include the reclassification of land (undeveloped) and the implementation of rates (dissuasive) for building in areas with a high risk of fires (pyrotasas), among others.

In already built-up areas, it is necessary to ensure that self-protection tasks are carried out, such as the implementation of security strips with little vegetation (or crops) around the houses, or even the implementation of prescribed irrigation. It’s important to make sure homes have wildfire insurance, and don’t expect firefighters to necessarily protect them. You have to take risks, responsibilities and costs if you want to live in the middle of highly flammable landscapes instead of in an urban area.

During heat waves, it would be convenient to reduce mobility in the mountains and in interface areas (urban-forest and agricultural-forest) to minimize the risk of ignitions.

4. Conserve forests and wetlands

We must conserve and restore forests in humid microhabitats (refuges), to increase their resilience to changes in climate.

We must promote the restoration of wetlands and other coastal ecosystems that, apart from the benefits for biodiversity, maintain the water cycle and contribute to the climate conservation.

Coastal degradation (due to desiccation of wetlands and over-urbanisation) contributes to the reduction of precipitation and the increase in greenhouse gases (water vapour). Promoting vegetation in urban areas (gardens, trees in the streets) also contributes to climate conservation, in addition to improving the quality of life of citizens.

5. Restore with more resistant plant species

Restoration must not have the past as a reference, but the future. In restoration projects and in plantations, species (or populations of the same species) should be used. more resistant to drought and fire than those that existed before. For example, species and populations that are currently found in drier areas or areas with more fires. This would be more sustainable than using the high-quality forest stations that were used in the climate of the last century.

6. Reduce the consumption of fossil fuels

This is key to curbing the increase in greenhouse gases, thus reducing the speed of climate change and the frequency of heat waves.

This summer we have large fires mainly in the western Mediterranean, and last summer we had them in the east, in line with the distribution of heat waves each year. There is nothing new or surprising in it. Everything is within expectations if we continue without adapting the landscape and our behavior to the new conditions of the 21st century. Fire and droughts will do it for us.

This article comes from The Conversation. Read the original here.