The human factor is decisive: climate change and forest fires
The intensification of climate change over the last century has brought to the debate the increase of forest fires and to what extent they relate to the warming of the planet Earth. The areas located in north and centre of Portugal are those with a higher incidence of fires, due to the large mountainous areas, rich in fuel.
In order to understand how this trend may or may not continue to increase, we spoke with Professor Paulo Fernandes, researcher at the Centre for the Research and Technology of Agro-Environmental and Biological Sciences (CITAB) at the UTAD (University of Trás-os-Montes and Alto Douro) and researcher in the field of forest fires and climate change.
Jornal Vernária (JV) – What are the implications of climate change in terms of fire risk? Are there clear scenarios for the consequences of climate change regarding the risk and the number of fires in the future?
Paulo Fernandes (PF) – Climate change is projected to result in greater meteorological risk of fire, due to the increased number of dry, hot days and more frequent extreme conditions. There are studies for future climate scenarios that predict an increase of two to four times the area burned in Portugal. These projections assume that, in any future climate, the remaining factors which influence the risk of fire remain unaltered. In fact, the climate change forecasted is expected to reduce plant productivity and consequently the amount of biomass that can burn. So, other studies anticipate that the burned area will not increase but instead decrease, especially in the south of Portugal. For that reason, the effect of climate change on fire is still uncertain.
JV – What are, in your opinion, the measures that need to be applied in forests? Prevention measures, efficient management of fuels, improved management of forests, implementation of forest protection plans against fire?
PF – The human factor is critical because 98% of the total number of ignitions have human cause. Hence, it is necessary to reduce the number of ignitions, mainly through education and awareness activities. In practice, the scope of these prevention programmes is limited because ignition sources are varied and unexpected. The forest goes through prevention interventions that reduce the amount and continuity of fuel in most types of vegetation that are “preferred” by the fire, which in Portugal are the woods, followed by maritime pine and eucalyptus. Ideally, the representative share of these types of vegetation should decrease, leading to forests that burn with less intensity and / or recover more easily after the fire, namely oak and other hardwood typical of humid environments. Unfortunately, climate change does not favour these species. These measures should be seen as part of a more professional forest management, only possible when there are prospects of income for the owners, and should integrate the defence plans against forest fires. Portugal has a national plan for forest fire prevention and its equivalents for municipalities.
JV – One of the goals proposed in the official documents is “to reduce the vulnerability exposure to biotic and abiotic risks.” What are these risks specifically? | One of the measures advocated for the prevention of forest fires is the “recovery of the affected areas by promoting more resilient forests.” Can you elaborate?
PF – The biotic risks correspond to the problems arising from pests (insects) and diseases while abiotic risks of forest decline essentially correspond to fires and meteorology disturbances (e.g. strong winds that knock down trees).
A “recovery of the affected areas by promoting more resilient forests” is a post-disturbance management that makes forest patches less vulnerable to future problems. It may result in the monitoring and conduction of natural forest regeneration, which is preferable (has lower costs), or the installation of new forest stands, choosing the most interesting species.
JV – Another measure is "to frame policies and plans for adaptation to climate change issues." Do you think this has been done?
PF – With regards to forest fires, I do not believe that is being considered.
JV – Quercus, on its website, has an article whose title reads as follows: “Quercus places responsibility on the government and the ICNF (Institute of Nature Conservation and Forestry) for neglecting forest policies and land use planning.” The issue of landscape planning is also pressing when it comes to fires and climate change, correct? Can you explain the relationship?
PF – There is a National Strategy for Forests, which was recently reviewed. The problem lies in putting it into practice. It is also very difficult to implement forest policies when land tenure is almost completely private, as is the case in Portugal. Landscape planning, regarding fire risks, includes more than management and forest policies, and should integrate civil protection concerns. For example, the construction of houses in the forest area should be regulated, reducing exposure to risk and improving the fight against a possible fire (less number of houses in need of protection by the firefighters).
JV – What do you believe to be important to clarify and emphasise with regards to climate change and its relation to the fires, and vice versa?
PF – Climate change is likely to aggravate the conditions that potentiate the outbreak and intensity of the fires, which will be partially offset because forest fuel will decrease by reduced rainfall. In any case, there are prevention and mitigation measures that can and should be adopted.
JV – What do you think each of us, and especially young students like us, can do to solve the problems we have mentioned?
PF – Young people with interest in these topics can take an active role in various aspects, by informing others and collaborating in activities related to the environment and forest, or more specifically, the prevention of fires, promoted by various institutions, including NGOs.
Work by: Filipa Gomes, Liliana Pinheiro e Ana Pereira
Agrupamento de Escolas Vieira de Araújo (Inter- School Group), Vieira do Minho
No 1: There was no source of information to confirm the statement “The destruction capacity of fires was 40 times higher than that registered during the 40s.” We found news indicating that the “intensity of forest fires is three times higher than in the 1940s” (http://www.publico.pt/sociedade/noticia/intensidade-dos-incendios-florestais-e-hoje-tres-vezes-maior-do-que-nos-anos-40-1696741).
This work was carried out under the Flash Seminar held on the 15th and the 27th of May 2015 at Agrupamento de Escolas Vieira de Araújo (Inter-School Group), in Vieria do Minho. Students developed media content based on interviews with experts in various fields related to climate change and research on the subject.