4 wildfire

Overview 2023: Catalonia



Europe is undergoing a change in the fire regimes of its forest ecosystems that is forcing organizations and society to adapt and integrate these environmental changes into land management, urban development, economic models, and civil protection policies. These ecological changes are not unique to Europe and are happening all over the world.

Catalonia is located within the European continent and features diverse forest landscapes, with a rich fire regime. Historical wildfires are welldocumented, and fire behaviour and burn intensities vary considerably. The Pyrenees mountain range to the north, the Ebro valley and the Iberian system to the south and west, and the coastal mountain range along the Mediterranean Sea to the east all contribute to this. The abundance of wildfires has helped society learn to live with fire and incorporate the risk of wildland fires into policies for prevention, land management, and population protection.

The Catalan Fire and Rescue Service (CFRS), as part of this society, has evolved over the last 45 years; it has understood the phenomenon of wildfires, the challenges of their management and integration into the social, economic and biodiversity management system. CRFS has been able to gather the lessons learned from historical wildfires, their patterns and characteristics, and to implement a program of prescribed fires. CRFS has adjusted the tactical deployment and strategy according to the different scenarios of complexity in wildfire management, and by belonging to the international community of fire analysts, it has been able to relate the observed behaviour of wildfires in Catalonia to spread patterns in other parts of the world, thus establishing similarities and shared knowledge.


This evolution has not been the same in all regions of Europe. Society and the fire community have had to adapt to the different starting points and scenarios according to their fire regimes, and the diversity of realities faced by fire suppression organizations. The description of the different problems encountered, the challenges and their lessons learned are explained in the firegeneration concept, which focuses on the problem driving the fire regime.


One of the historical changes (first generation), on the landscape is the abandonment of agriculture and the increase in forested area. Fires increase in fuel continuity when the managed mosaic from centuries is lost. Responding as firefighters only buys time for more fuel build-up; this will bring more fast-spreading fires (second- generation problem) and with time, more fast and intense fires that will overwhelm the extinguishing capacity (third-generation problem). This is the well-known fire paradox that is happening worldwide: the more fire suppression resources are deployed, the fewer fires will escape in the short term. However, the relentless fuel build up will facilitate fires that eventually will exceed the capacity of the system.

Given the difficulty of managing fuel over large areas when society becomes urban, a selective approach has evolved, based on strategic management points in the territory. The approach is also promoted by biodiversity preservation that focuses on minimizing land management and public budget limits. We understand that every part of the landscape is linked to a portion of the fire-shed. So, some areas protect fire to get into one fire-shed or a portion of it. Applying this concept, we can design the landscape management building a mosaic of strategic management points that guarantee our capacity of management in key locations in front of extreme wildfires.

Another solution is to promote the use of fire behavior models and analysis to be proactive with the operations divisions of our fire services. The operations divisions need to think tactically in deciding where and when to act, choosing the place where they can win, and clearly stating at what cost this will be achieved. Every decision is a trade-off between what we leave unprotected to guarantee the protection of another asset. In this adaptation, every fire service has had to increase the type of tools and skills to be able to use them in as many tactical opportunities as possible. Across European fire regions, prescribed burning has made a resurgence in recent years after long being either banned or simply not part of the fire service’s tools and skills. Data supports the impact of prescribed burning on the creation of a healthy forest.


The fourth generation incorporates the civil protection emergency when second- or thirdgeneration wildfire problems impact critical infrastructure and population. Agencies must react to protect threatened infrastructure and then prioritiize which resources to protect, especially when there are not enough resources for all of them. During wildfire suppression operations, triage may need to be used, which requires knowing what and who is present and where. Now, the pressure is no longer on defending forests from fires; it is on protecting societies from large high intensity wildfires that burn through unhealthy forests.

A culture of self-protection must be introduced among the population so that people have passive protection systems and know how to act during an emergency. The emergency management system cannot neglect wildland fire to focus only on the impacts on wildland-urban areas. If the wildland fires are not managed, it will affect new vulnerable elements and cause the whole system to collapse. Fires such as those in Maçanet de la Selva in 2003 with 670 houses involved, La Jonquera in 2012 with five towns impacted and 11,000 people confined inside, and Vallirana in 2013 where 345 houses were involved in the first hour of the initial attack, are examples of this learning process. In these situations, tactics applied to prioritize the few houses involved in the flames during the initial attack had a trade-off of further house losses. Forest management and strategic management points located to protect the wildland-urban interface become a pivotal approach, but we need an extra tool. Triage becomes a lesson learned: we can let one house burn to protect two, but never can leave two to be lost to protect one. The same lessons become imperative when, instead of houses, we protect lives.


The fifth generation came with the problem of fourth-generation wildfires occurring simultaneously. Such a situation may exceed fire suppression capabilities and affect the population and critical infrastructure in several locations at the same time. Strategic triage on decision making at this landscape level is a difficult task when it comes to assessing the trade-off. Here, the solution comes by introducing the concept of the common good, which should be discussed beforehand as a participatory process with the community. The agreements on the values, priorities, and strategic management are a contract between fire service and society to reduce uncertainty on the decisions and outcomes of the fire management strategy during the emergency. A new paradigm has resulted from this process, shifting the response away from the classic people first, then assets and finally forest rule. We now assess first a common good approach in strategic management, avoid tactical collapse, and guarantee capacity of action when planning operations, so when it comes, you always can save lives, assets, and forest. The old approach of lives first failed; when saving one life we have lost many. It is a lesson learned the hard way and one that is difficult to teach. However, is a lesson we cannot afford to learn repeated times.

To improve the response in this complex scenario of simultaneous large-scale emergencies, assistance among neighbours requires a harmonised and known catalogue of capabilities of the different equipment available, such as, for example, that of the fire analyst capacities. The exchange of people and equipment before the emergency response is a necessity, as it allows the creation of relationships based on trust among agencies. This trust and prior knowledge are key to making the most of the assistance received where it is most effective. This response is being well co-ordinated under the European Union civil protection.


The last scenario is the most worrying – the scenario of the sixth fire generation. In it, fire couples with the upper layers of the atmosphere, creating a new and difficult situation with extreme fire behavior. Extreme fires are shifting from fuel hypothesis to extreme weather hypothesis under the climate change crisis. This scenario is characterised by a change in the behaviour of large-scale fires, several kilometres away. Las Máquinas in 2017 (Chile), burning 8000 hectares an hour through the night, Pedrógão Grande in 2017 (Portugal), spreading at 4,000 hectares an hour and killing 64 civilians, Santa Ana-Bíobío in 2023 (Chile), and Santa Coloma de Queralt in 2021 in Catalonia, show the current challenge on forecasting the transition from a fuel-driven wildfire to a pyrocumolonimbus (PyroCb) phenomena and the implication of this uncertainty in emergency management decision making.

To confront the magnitude of the challenge posed by this new scenario, it is necessary to accept that some of the processes involved in pyroconvection are not yet fully understood. Research should focus on the study and understanding of this complex fire-atmosphere interaction effect and provide to the responding agencies with scientific criteria for the triage based on the common good preserved in every achievable strategic scenario.

Global Collaboration

It would be beneficial to reflect with colleagues worldwide on the fact that the processes and patterns of wildfires are universal. However, what differs is how the fire suppression system perceives and deals with them. We need to share lessons learned to avoid reinventing the wheel every fire season in different parts of the world. We need to speed up the learning process to evaluate and understand the fire problem globally. A critical need is when it comes to integrate fire management and fire use in our urban society. Fire needs to be integrated as a disturbance in the landscape; this means that its presence is planned, agreed with the territory and with a legal basis. In the Pyrineed, at the Val d’Aran, regional government has legislated to integrate shepherds management, that is, using grazing animals to reduce the build-up of flammable vegetation, and cultural fire-use into its emergency management decision-making process. Starting in 2023, any natural or deliberate ignition that occurs in an area designated in the Aran prescribed burn plan will be managed to achieve the fire-use plans if the weather conditions are within the prescribed limits for the following days. This policy was implemented after the Canejan fire in March of that year.

Thus, the key learning factor is the capacity of society and its emergency management system to understand fires and wildfires, to anticipate decisions without falling into fear and reactivity. The approach is setting our wildfire reality a step ahead of the collapse we were facing the last decade. We are starting to build a complex emergency management approach that integrates different stakeholders in a common view. The approach is not looking to build response, but to proactively manage the landscape to promote effective fire management actions. Involving society in education about the approach to a solution instead of the approach to a response is creating spaces to manage complex emergencies into a society that is aware of and educated in selfprotection and the risks it faces.


Marc Castellnou is the founder and former president of Pau Costa Foundation, and now serves on its board. Castellnou is a professor at the University of Lleida Master Fuego. He started as a firefighter in 1989 and became an ecology forester in 1997. In 1990, Castellnou started as an incident commander at and wildfire strategic analyst at the Catalan Fire Service, where he created the GRAF teams, along with prescribed burn plan and a wildfire training program. Castellnou was recognized by the IAWF with its safty award in 2015. Castellnou is a PhD candidate in boundary layer physics and wildfire spread patterns.

Edgar Nebot is with the Catalan Fire and Rescue Service.