Forest fires in Spain. SDG15
“Life of terrestrial ecosystems.” (I).
Francisco Javier Plaza Martín
I intend to explain why we have reached the current situation of large forest fires, as well as to address and analyze the causes that as a society have led to these significant disturbances in nature, and finally, to establish measures to redirect the situation, creating more favorable scenarios so that they do not occur or reduce their damage.
Spanish forest systems and forests can significantly contribute to achieving the SDGs of the 2030 agenda if they are adequately managed.
This objective consists, among other issues, of protecting and sustainably managing forest systems, combating desertification, and preventing biodiversity loss. However, several problems can generate undesired disturbances for achieving this objective, such as the complex case of large forest fires that burn at high intensity.
Large forest fires are a complex problem that denotes weakness in the system due to structural causes caused by society’s lack of management or abandonment of forest ecosystems.
Fire management has been the precursor of human development. Since our most remote ancestors, it has always been used to manage the territory according to their needs and has been a modeling element of terrestrial ecosystems. As a result, all ecosystems have a greater or lesser degree of resilience and adaptation to fire disturbance.
When we talk about forest fires, we refer to fires that spread uncontrollably through forest vegetation, whether woodland, scrub, or grassland. And this is where the problem arises. In the last decades in Spain, there have been between 12,000 and 20,000 incidents per year between forest fires and less than one-hectare fires. The casuistry and problems differ enormously from one region to another. In 2022, it is estimated that 310,000 hectares will be affected by fire in Spain. Sixty large forest fires (those larger than 500 ha) have burned most of the area and caused severe damage to society due to their high intensity and virulence.
Satellite Image Australia 2019-2020
The causes of ignition are well-known and diverse and provide an approach to tackling and reducing specific problems. Generally, they are “mundane” causes and not attributable to arsonists, dark motivations, or hidden interests to which we have become accustomed to certain politicians or media. There is also a not inconsiderable percentage due to natural causes. Ignitions may be reduced, but they will always exist. There will always be a lightning strike or an accident. The problem is how to address the situation of our ecosystems so that a significant forest fire does not occur or its damage is minimized.
Spain’s current forest fire extinguishing devices are among the most powerful and best qualified in the international context. However, there is room for improvement, especially in training. Their origin as we know them today dates back to the 80s and 90s of the 20th century. All this after the collapse of the traditional agrarian system. The abandonment of the primary activity, especially in forests, pastures, and marginal and mountain lands, has its genesis in the abandonment of extensive territories that were depopulated by the migration of its inhabitants and the abandonment of the rural by the system. In the past, the extinction of forest fires was mainly carried out by the society settled in every corner of Spain. Prevention was carried out through their daily economic activity around using products from the mountains, forests, extensive livestock, and agriculture, especially in mountain areas and marginal lands—all according to the knowledge and cultural and economic contexts of the different periods.
The behavior of forest fires is basically due to meteorological, topographical, and fuel elements. The first two cannot be influenced. Ignoring the diversity of ecosystems, we will speak of vegetation only as fuel. Large forest fires burn at such intensity and give off such energy that they do not consider plant species. From this point of view, their behavior is due to their moisture content and the way the vegetation is structured, which is the fuel of the fire. Many of the forests we know developed in other climatic conditions and are out of their range to grow optimally. They are stressed.
Llutxent forest fire 2018 (Valencia). Photo Preventive Surveillance Service of the Generalitat Valenciana,
When a forest fire is outside the extinguishing capacity of a device, its components cannot stop the advance of a forest fire regardless of the characteristics and number of its components; the abandonment of forest territories does not generate extinguishing opportunities nor safety conditions for the devices. As a result, many forest fires, within a few minutes of the occurrence, are out of their capacity and therefore risk becoming a large forest fire with catastrophic consequences.
Forest fires are no longer only a problem in the forests, causing adverse effects for society, but also for the population and infrastructures that develop in their surroundings, becoming emergencies of the first order, especially in highly populated places around the forest masses. It is no longer only necessary to protect the forests; we must also protect ourselves from them, creating actual civil protection incidents. Forest fire suppression is the answer to a problem, but does not address the underlying causes that favor its development. Forest fire suppression alone is not the way to tackle the problem. Only some powerful and qualified devices can work under certain conditions.
Fco. Javier Plaza Martín