How is the territory preparing for the next wildfire?

28 April, 2022

By Isabeau Ottolini, PhD Candidate at the UOC, Early Stage Researcher in the PyroLife Innovative Training Network and researcher in the IN3 group CareNet. 

Her research focuses on Community-based wildfire communication. For this, Isabeau is doing her case study with Pego Viu, a land stewardship collective born from the ashes of the Vall d’Ebo wildfire in 2015. 

During her fieldwork with Pego Viu, members of the collective told her about the need to learn from other territories that have suffered major wildfires or are at risk of having one. For this reason, the idea of organising a workshop was born, with the aim of creating a space dialogue to exchange, between different organisations and groups, experiences and knowledges about how different territories are preparing for the next wildfires. 

In this article it is shared what Isabeau and her colleagues did during this special workshop, and summarise the topics discussed (both the problems, proposals, and reflections on wildfires). With an ending that includes some conclusions and ideas for next steps, aimed at continuing to create a network among all the people involved in the world of wildfires. 

 

The workshop

On Sunday 13th of February we held the workshop “How is the territory preparing for the next wildfire?” in Pego (Alicante), organised by Pego Viu, PyroLife, the UOC, the Pego Town Council and the Generalitat Valenciana. 

More than twenty people attended to the event, including citizens, people from different (volunteer) groups related to wildfire prevention and land stewardship, members of public administrations, firefighters, etc. With this diversity of people, both in person and virtually, from the Valencian Autonomous Region and beyond, the workshop was an excellent and much-needed opportunity to gather

“We can do a lot. We can hold workshops like these, this is prevention, it is working on territorial management, it is sharing, having a debate, presenting ideas that are not opposite from one another but instead come from the lived reality and knowledges of each of us, and learning from each other. (Ana Tortosa)

The Round Table

The day began with a round table. During this, the leading question was “how is the territory preparing for the next wildfire? Specifically, we focused on discussing how to move from planning (because there are many good wildfire prevention plans) to action (which is often lacking). We also explored the role of groups and collectives (such as Pego Viu, the ACIF or groups against wildfires…) in implementing these plans and helping to prepare the territory for the next wildfire.

At the round table we were honoured with the presence of:


In addition, the public also participated a lot in the discussions, including members of the Alzira Town Council, firefighters from different organisations (SISGE – Valencian Society for the Integral Management of Emergency Services, UBF – Wildfire Brigades), and citizens. 

Participants of the round table and organisers of the workshop (Jorge Tortosa, Javier Asensi, Néstor Portes, Rosa Sala, Isabeau Ottolini, and on-line: Ana Tortosa & Francisco Boza. photo: ABAI
Participants of the round table and organisers of the workshop (Jorge Tortosa, Javier Asensi, Néstor Portes, Rosa Sala, Isabeau Ottolini, and on-line: Ana Tortosa & Francisco Boza. photo: ABAI

 

Problems surrounding wildfires

During the round table, we first talked about the problems surrounding wildfires

Firstly, there are the dynamics that are leading to large forest masses:   

  • The elimination of fire from the ecosystem. Paradoxically, in having such a good wildfire extinction service in the Valencian Region, we no longer allow fires in our ecosystem. As Ferran Dalmau explains, good fire does not damage the ecosystem and is, in fact, part of it. As it occurs during the winter with low temperature and high humidity, this kind of wildfire burns dead vegetation, without affecting the living vegetation, and thus reduces the accumulated biomass. On the other hand, there is the bad fire, which are those wildfires burning with great intensity and affecting huge surfaces, and becoming more and more common, especially during the summer, causing great social and ecological impacts. 
  • Low economic profitability of the agricultural, livestock and forestry sector, leading to a strong decrease of these activities. This whilst agriculture, extensive grazing and forestry are key to creating a mosaic territory, resilient to large wildfires. Francisco Boza lived first-hand the Sierra Bermeja-Genal fire in September 2021 (where 10,000 ha were burnt), and he tells us: 

“Every summer we listen for the sound of helicopters. We experience the reality of the big forest masses with great concern. It has always been an agricultural-forest territory, but now it is almost exclusively forest, because neither extensive livestock farming, nor Pinus pinaster resin, nor cork is profitable“.

The result is that there are increasingly larger areas of continuous forest in our territory, with a great risk of wildfires, and even more so under the context of climate change. This is why Rosa Sala tells that “in the past, we people of ABAI used to plant trees after a wildfire, but now it is more important that we clean the mountain and forest in order to prevent fires”. 

Rapid regrowth of pine trees and shrubs after the Vall d'Ebo wildfire in 2015. Photo: Isabeau Ottolini
Rapid regrowth of pine trees and shrubs after the Vall d’Ebo wildfire in 2015. Photo: Isabeau Ottolini

Secondly, there is a lack of coordination and communication between all the people involved in wildfires and its prevention. This makes it difficult, among other things, to move from wildfire prevention plans to their implementation in the territory. Moreover, we often do not know the great work and efforts done by other groups and institutions, and we are thus losing out on great opportunities to join forces and work together, as a firefighter from Dènia points out.  

Finally, during the round table we also talked about the problem of houses in the wildland-urban interface, and especially the houses that are poorly protected against fires. As Jorge Tortosa explains:

“According to the law and always under the direction of the brigade captain, the fire brigade is obliged to save people and houses first, before working on saving the forest. For this reason, a well-protected house is a valuable asset in wildfire fighting: there is no risk of fire, and the brigade does not have to go to save the house, but can go to other places to save many hectares of forest”

Proposals and reflections  

Throughout the day, different proposals and reflections emerged to prepare the territory for the next wildfire. 

Undoubtedly, the management of territory, forests and mountains is essential. It is not possible to prevent all fires, but by creating discontinuities in the vegetation, it is possible to limit the spread of fire across the territory and prevent it from becoming uncontrollable. Also, it is not necessary for the whole territory to be managed, but at least the strategic areas, which are determined in each Local Fire Prevention Plan, should be managed. 

On one hand, fire can be a management tool. As Ana Tortosa says, “we no longer have the same relationship with fire in the territory as before, but we have to learn to use it again, to live with it, because the total elimination of fire from our ecosystem is impossible“. A member of the Alacant Forest Firefighters Unit explains that we can introduce fire back into the ecosystem little by little, as is already being done in various places in the region, such as Castell de Castells (here is a video report from the Terra Viva programme). 

On the other hand, land management must be sustainable in every sense. And this includes economic sustainability, as Ferran Dalmau emphasises. Nowadays, agricultural, livestock and forestry activities, which are essential to land management, are not very profitable. That is why it is necessary, as Rosa Sala says, to: 

“create workplaces that are profitable, that allow people to eat and earn a living. Moreover, they are not separate things: here is some burning, there are some tomato plants, here there is a water source, here there is a hut with a pen and a goat, there is a grandpa cutting some trees, it’s all this together, it’s an ecosystem”.

During the round table, ideas also emerged about what each one of us can do, from the place we work and live as firefighters, volunteer groups, forest landowners, citizens, public administrators… We can all do our bit to prepare the territory for the next wildfire.  

Firefighting sheep from Pego Viu. Photo: Kathleen Uyttewaal

 

  • Wildfire prevention and land stewardship groups play a very important role.

    Firstly, they can become involved in the execution of Local Forest Fire Prevention Plans as they have more agility of action than public administrations. This can include the creation and maintenance of strategic wildfire areas, such as fire breaks (Pego Viu does this with its herd of firefighting sheep). In the event of a wildfire, these places also form safe areas where firefighters can work without fearing being trapped by the fire.

    Secondly, they can involve the local population through talks, workshops, courses, volunteer activities, etc., with local people, young people, but also people from urban areas. This is explained by Javier Asensi, based on his experience at Connecta Natura, through projects such as Lligabosc and Mosaics de Vida.
  • People with strong links to their environment, such as landowners, farmers, and volunteer groups, are the most knowledgeable people of their area. In the event of a wildfire, fire-fighting personnel can rely on these people and their knowledges (e.g. on where there are safe places to work from, where there is a path to access, etc.), as Jorge Tortosa explains based on his experience in the ACIF Alcoi.
  • Citizens can also make important contributions. Many times we complain that “oh, the people, oh, society: they don’t do anything, they aren’t involved”, but, as Ana Tortosa points out: “who are the people, who are society? And we realise that it is we ourselves, each and every one of us”. In this sense, we need to reflect on what we can do, as citizens (which we all are!). As such, two recommendations emerged from the round table: 1) to consume local products, from local agriculture and livestock farming that contributes to maintaining a mosaic, diverse and resilient landscape, and 2) to create safety zones around our homes in the wildland-urban interface.
  • Public administrations can create legal measures and promote wildfire prevention For example, the technicians of Alzira Town Council explain that they have created a municipal ordinance that defines and helps with the self-protection measures that owners of houses in the wildland-urban interface have to implement.
    Wildland-urban interface. Photo: Isabeau Ottolini

    The field visit to the Pego Viu land stewardship project

    Once the round table was over, we first enjoyed a good meal (as any workshop should include!). Afterwards, we visited the Pego Viu land stewardship project and its firefighting sheep. 

    Heading up the mountains towards the Pla d’Almisserà, we first stopped to observe the landscape that was burnt in 2015, and the strategic wildfiree areas. The management of these areas is challenging. On the one hand, because many of them are very small private plots, and the owners, for various reasons, are unable or unwilling to manage them, or even don’t know that they are landowners. On the other hand, the city council does not have the means to manage public land. In this sense, land stewardship by groups such as Pego Viu or Connecta Natura could be part of the solution, working in strategic locations to prevent and limit the impact of future fires. 

    Observing the landscape. Photo: Kathleen Uyttewaal
    The volunteers of Pego Viu have weekly turns to shepherd the sheep on a daily basis. Specifically, they take the sheep to the plots that the collective has in custody, where these eat the grass and shrubs at the strategic wildfire areas. As we walked around the area, we saw that even a small herd can do a great job for wildfire prevention. 

    Afterwards, the members of Pego Viu took us to see their pilot project with the firefighting sheep herd. With a herd of about 6 sheep of the native breed, the guirra, they demonstrate how extensive grazing can contribute to wildfire prevention.
    Visiting the firefighting sheep. Photo: ABAI

    Conclusions and next steps

    Néstor Portes, the president of Pego Viu, closed the workshop with these conclusions: 

    • Fire is part of the Mediterranean ecosystem, and it is only a matter of time before we once again have a large wildfire in our territory. While fire-fighting services do a great job as a response to wildfires, they are not the solution to prevent major wildfires
    • We are all inhabitants of this wildfire-prone territory prone, and hence have a shared responsibility. Therefore, we have to do our part, from our own places and roles, whether this is in public administrations, volunteer groups, fire brigades, as citizens, etc. 
    • As citizens we can do a lot, such as consuming local products, creating safety zones around our homes, and participating in volunteer groups. 
    • Public administrations make important contributions, such as we saw with the Alzira ordinance, and various legal measures for Local Forest Fire Prevention Plans. However, at the same time, they are not quick to move from planning to action, and this is where the citizen groups have a great role to play, by organising land stewardship activities, as well as other activities such as dissemination, knowledge sharing, training of young people, etc. 
    • Citizen groups can also form bridges between citizens, public administrations, and firefighters. Nevertheless, it is important to highlight the work they are doing, which is often not very visible or well known, even by other inhabitants of the area. By joining forces, they can exert pressure, for example, so that public administrations delegate to them certain territorial management activities.    
    • The workshop was an opportunity to visibilize the large number of good initiatives, and to put together our ideas on how to prepare the territory for the next wildfire. But we need to coordinate with each other, to hold more meetings like this on a regular basis, instead of relying solely on small, community-led, voluntary meetings on Sundays, to exchange ideas and resources and create a network. 

     

    It has been a day full of enthusiasm and desire to continue building a network. For this reason, during the workshop we came up with several ideas for the next steps: 

    • Form a group to keep the network, created thanks to the workshop, alive; 
    • Establish a place and time for regular meetings, to exchange ideas, create a network, join forces, share resources, learn from the experiences of others;
    • To visit other projects that have been talked about during the workshop.  

    Do you have any more ideas? Would you like to participate in any way? Contact Isabeau Ottolini at iottolini@uoc.edu   

     

     

    European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme MSCA-ITN-2019, under grant agreement No 860787

    The original version, written by Isabeau Ottolini, is published here on the PyroLife website
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