Almost 100,000 soccer fields. That is the area that has burned in Spain in the first seven months of 2019, according to data from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. From January to July 14th, 48,821.97 hectares had burned in the Mediterranean country, and the summer, with heat waves causing fires even in the Arctic, is far from over yet. In an European context, Spain is the second Mediterranean country, behind Portugal, that records more forest fires each year, with about 12,000 accidents and about 100,000 hectares on average calcined, according to the report The Mediterranean Burns 2019 recently presented by the conservation organization World Wildlife Fund. The study, that analyzes fires in Spain, France, Greece, Italy, Turkey and Portugal, over the period 2009-2018, states that “The only effective strategy to deal with fires is to address the causes and bet on real prevention: reduce high accident rates and make the territory less flammable and more resilient to climate change. ”
And the causes are none other than the abandonment of forests, the lack of prevention and the absence of resources to care and develop rural environments. “Along the last three decades our forests have grown exponentially in a disorderly way because there has been no forestry planning, and we have been suffering from a strong public divestment that affects directly the health and conservation state of woods since the necessary forestry to shape vegetation structure is not carried out”, explains Patricia Gómez Agrela Agrela, manager of the Confederation of Organizations of Foresters of Spain (COSE).
Juan Luis Abián Perruca, managing director of the Center of the Forest Ownership of the Department of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and Food of Generalitat of Catalonia, adds that “these are marginal areas where there are no people living, or agriculture. So, there is no economy and if there is no economy, the territory will continue to burn. Because they (the Administration) don’t let do many things: they don’t let build houses, nor repair the ones that already exist. There are many problems. And it is not easy for people to live in the villages, as a result, people go to the cities. And this is what’s happening.” As an example, he presents the Priorat region: “20 years ago, schools were closing in that area due to lack of children. They started planting vines and now there is an economy behind. There will be no fire there, first because almost no forest remains because they have planted vineyards, and because there is economy, there is enough wealth; it has changed in 20 years. But that can’t be done everywhere.”
Sustainable forest management, a solution
Gómez Agrela agrees that the economy is at the root of the problem, but there are other elements intervening: “There is a well-known saying in our sector that says, ‘profitable lands don’t burn’. But other conditions such as humidity, ignition and meteorology (heat waves or high wind speeds that spread the fire) also come into play in a large fire (more than 500 hectares). The famous ‘rule of 30’: Ambient temperature equal to or greater than 30ºC, wind gusts of the order or greater than 30km /h and a relative humidity of less than 30% is a very dangerous combination”.
She adds that, of all the mentioned factors, there is only one that can be managed: “the fuel”. That is, the woods. And she points out that focusing only on the specific causes, forgetting the state of the woods and forests is a serious mistake.
“Reducing great fires, therefore, implies the treatment and the management of our landscapes”. Focusing on ignition, that is, the specific cause of a particular forest fire does not address the problem of fires, Gómez Agrela maintains. “We must insist on the necessity to manage the territory, as well as upon the need for planning and doing prevention work, or on the fact that there is a perversion in the payment system for extensive livestock, on rural depopulation, on the need to mitigate the effects of climate change by means of managed forests to increase carbon sinks”.
In order to prevent, she says, “we must put all possible aid in the hands of the land’s main managers, that is landowners. An effective fire prevention policy bases on the economic viability of sustainable forest management.”
Because forest owners are one of the keys in fire prevention and management of forest stands, however, little is said about their role and the resources allocated to the prevention of accidents such as those that have razed thousands of hectares. in Tarragona, Madrid, and Ávila, for example.
Fire does not understand limits
“Fire, like pests, does not understand about ownership or administrative limits. However, forest owners are very aware of the fact that the more managed the forest mass is, the more likely a fire is to stay in a conato (less than 1 hectare) and not become a fire (greater than 1 hectare)”, says Patricia Gómez Agrela.
In Spain, according to data from the National Rural Network, every year there is an average of 15,647 fire claims, of which two thirds affect an area of less than 1 hectare, which does not mean that they are not important. But what kind of help do forest owners receive to prevent and control small fires, not only during the summer, the time of greatest risk, but throughout the year?
The manager of the Confederation of Organizations of Foresters of Spain is blunt:
“The aid received is very scarce, and mostly linked to the Rural Development Programs (RDP) designed by each Autonomous Community, which means that not all owners receive them.
” Generally, when talking about fires, a fundamental piece in this fight is forgotten: Forest owners. In their hands lies much of the solution to this problem that grips us year after year and is a real threat in economic, social and environmental aspects.
” However, the aid is not proportional to the investment that the owners have to make to maintain the forest stands. If part of the resources allocated to extinction were dedicated to the management, a true prevention would be carried out while contributing to generating a much-desired socio-economic model in rural areas, since preventive actions generate jobs in their environments.
” Often the owner feels helpless before a fire, the aid (if any, as it depends on the Autonomous Community) is insufficient and usually late. Nor do fire insurance placate the situation because the premium to be paid is very high and it is not always possible to face it.”
She says that, with a good investment in management and fiscal incentives for forests, we would have more resilient and fire-resistant forests and would have savings in fire extinguishing and points out that in the last decade investment in forest fire prevention has dropped by 50%.
The most affected
Forest fires in Tarragona, Toledo, Madrid, Ávila, Cantabria and Andalusia –just to mention a few– have put on the spot, at least for a few days, the material and emotional damage caused by a forest fire. Because during the fire season the media make a thorough coverage of the fires, while the authorities put all possible means to extinguish them, but then the issue falls into oblivion: “Now we are in the media because of the fires, but we haven’t been for 10 years. If there is a fire, we appear in the media four days, but as soon as it’s over, we disappear. At the most, and depending on how the campaign went, there will be a Congress hearing in September about the fires occurred during the season. It will be a deja vu from previous years and then it will pass. When it is no longer news, people have other worries”, explains Juan Luis Abián Perruca.
In a great forest fire neighbors, nearby towns, cattle ranchers who have their animals in the vicinity of the fires, they all suffer, but little is said about forest owners who, in short, are one of the most affected groups. “In a fire we all lose, but the most affected is the forest owner, who has invested time, money and effort in preserving a land he or she has got from their parents and that has been inherited from generation to generation with the commitment to hand it in better conditions than received. And it is not only a property what is transferred, but a rooting feeling and a sense of responsibility to take care of the land. All these is not perceived by urban society, far removed from rural territory. It is said that a whole rural generation is already lost, and with it the knowledge of land use. An incalculable loss; If we lose forest culture, such as fire management, natural heritage is lost and even the identity and roots of the people who lived to take advantage of their forests. Simply because people no longer live there”, says Gómez Agrela, who adds that to avoid devastating fires such as those occurred in recent weeks “we need a live rural environment, with people who live in it and take care of it. We cannot remove man from the ecosystem.”
This can be achieved with proposals to boost forest activity and with lots of communication so that society understands the work of forest owners. “We ask political parties for a pact for forests, and for a firm investment policy in forestry that reduces the risk of fire and depopulation so that the forestry sector executes the economic, environmental and socially strategic potential that forests have. We have a huge natural capital without taking advantage.”
A solution, a greener taxation
That rural Spain is becoming empty is no secret. And this, as we have already seen, takes its toll as biomass growing out of control and ending up as fire pasture. One of the formulas to avoid it boosting rural areas. However, little is being done in this regard.
Juan Luis Abián Parruca explains that the forestry sector is requesting a different taxation: “For example, that forest work deduct, or be exempt from VAT, that they have a lower income tax; in short that the whole forest industry has different, greener taxation. This could be a trigger to help move the rural economy, but it won’t be easy”. For Gómez Agrela “it is essential that the Administration understand that encouraging forest management, for example, through taxation, is the best way to prevent fires.”
Fires are fought with active management and promoting the use of the forest, explains the COSE manager. Some especially important for the “cleaning of the mountain,” he says, are the use of forest biomass for energy use and extensive livestock.
For forests to be less vulnerable, resources and measures that encourage forest management must be dedicated. “We ask for a change of approach that places more emphasis on preventive forestry and has the experience and collaboration of the owners and the inhabitants of rural areas in specific plans to combat accidents (such as fires) and others forest action designs, in an exercise of good governance ”, says Gómez Agrela, who adds that local, regional and state administrations must work jointly and in coordination on equipment and means of extinction, and in the creation of fire infrastructure.