3 wildfire



As I wrote this in June, it seemed as if my home country of Spain had won the annual fire lottery. Fueled by a heat wave of Saharan air that encased Europe, an unusually early and active wildfire season burned an area in Spain of more than 80,700 hectares (200,000 acres).
In the Northwestern region of Zamora, there were evacuations in 18 different municipalities by the Sierra de la Culebra fire, which devastated 30,800 hectares (76,000 acres) of forests in one of the least populated areas of Europe.
Meanwhile, firefighters in Malaga, Catalonia, Navarre, and Aragon fought unusually extreme fires. Temperatures in the northeast coast of Spain reached 39.5 C (103 F); this was the earliest heatwave in Spain in 40 years, and broke records. Spain usually experiences such high temperatures in July and August.
Spain provides an important lesson for us when we consider how to manage our lands more effectively, because these harsh weather conditions are meeting a landscape that is not as resilient in fuels management as it once was. This loss of resiliency in Spain is due to a rural exodus to urban centers and the aging of the remaining rural population; this has led to a disappearance of traditional land uses, such as grazing, farming and forest management. Now, more scrubland and unhealthy forests make fires difficult to control. Funding for forest health lags behind, while there are no policy obligations for urban communities to support rural areas for the benefits derived from forest lands.
After 4,000 years of human presence in Southern Europe, rural economic and growth policy changes have created this challenge in an already fire prone and developed the conditions to make historical fires more intense. More firefighting resources is not the answer. There are needs for better conditions for firefighters, but the southern European countries do have very strong aerial firefighting forces. Due to this lack of resources, other tools need to be identified to help balance the effort. Prescribed and traditional burning and the use of forest biomass as the most efficient renewable source of energy can be that support.
The future of extreme heat “is unfortunately a foretaste of the future,” said Clare Nullis, a spokeswoman for the World Meteorological Organization, in a June article in the Washington Post. Nullis stressed that the influence of early-season heat waves were being propelled by climate change. The unseasonal heat wave across Europe impacted the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Poland, and Germany with wildfires. Even many communities around Berlin were evacuated as a precaution due to wildfires.
Such heat waves pose deadly risks to vulnerable populations, such as those with chronic diseases, the very young and the very old, even before the impacts of wildfire are felt. Heat waves pose a challenge to land management and agricultural efforts as they create a dryer landscape earlier in the year. Heat waves also complicate the efforts of fire agencies tasked with fuels mitigation and proper prescribed fire applications. A June article in Vox about wildfires in New Mexico said that “As climate change makes for hotter, drier summers and more volatile wildfires, and as we seem to be heading into a particularly destructive fire season, prescribed burns are becoming more necessary than ever. They’re also becoming harder to pull off.”
As our wildfire community faces a future of earlier fires on a dryer landscape, I am proud that the IAWF is completing a position paper on the proper use of prescribed fire to advance hazard reduction, ecosystem management, traditional applications and pastoral burning practices. I am happy to say that Alen Slijepcevic, IAWF’s past president (2018-2019) is leading this effort and guided the development of the recently released IAWF Climate Change Position Paper. Both position papers define our association’s accepted vision and set forth our future efforts. One of the strongest pronouncements made by the climate change position paper is that prescribed burning must be implemented at all levels as a management tool in this new environment. The subsequent position paper on prescribed burns will put this focus in motion.
The forthcoming position paper on prescribed fire will lay out a strong call to action. We need to positively influence the public’s understanding of the overarching and long-term benefits of fire on our landscapes. In our changing climate conditions, we will need to redouble our efforts and spread the positive message about the value of both the use of fire to mitigate risks – through prescribed, Indigenous, and controlled burning – and the allowance of some wildfires deemed low risk to run their natural courses. This path forward also requires identification of ecosystems most at risk to large and high severity wildfires and the prioritization of mitigation measures to balance their impacts.
It is important that the IAWF recognizes traditional burning practices. We acknowledge and support the role that Indigenous people have in undertaking cultural and traditional burning for a range of purposes associated with caring for their land. The IAWF must also promote the natural role of wildland fire in the landscape, and the ability of communities to plan for and adapt to living with wildland fire and smoke; this can be achieved through an all-inclusive approach to the future of wildland fire management with an emphasis on a shared responsibility by all stakeholder organizations, states, and the public.
I am most excited about the position paper’s focus on the need for technology, innovation, research, and policy to advance the benefits of prescribed fire. This focus on data sharing among implementers and the promotion of the best available science to the public is both needed and something we can all achieve together. I look forward to the forthcoming position paper and applaud its development committee on their comprehensive work on its goals and calls to action for us all to embrace.
The wildfires this summer in Spain reminds us all that while our landscapes are changing, we have the ability to change the practices around them. The recent practice of overprotecting those lands is not a solution but a real challenge because of a lack of real economic support to traditional practices of those areas. The Zamora wildfire in Spain is a perfect example of this impact. As a wildfire community, we need to gain the public’s support for the rural populations that are making those lands viable for the rest of us.


Joaquin Ramirez Cisneros
Joaquin Ramirez Cisneros

Joaquin Ramirez Cisneros is a wildland fire technologist who has been working for the last 25 years to bridge the gap between scientists and end users. In 2013, Ramirez moved to San Diego from Spain, and now works with agencies worldwide trying to convert the best science into actionable tools. Ramirez is the creator of several of the most advanced fire behavior software model implementations and decision support systems, including the Wildfire Analyst and fiResponse software tools. Since 2011, Ramirez has co-ordinated the first European M.S. in Forest Fires (www.masterfuegoforestal.es) with Prof. Rodriguez Francisco y Silva (UCO) and Prof. Domingo Molina (UdL). Ramirez is a founder and active member of the Pau Costa Foundation. He earned his PhD in remote sensing and GIS at the University of Leon in 2003, an M.S. in forestry from the University of Lleida, and his B.S. in forest engineering from the Polytechnical University of Madrid, Spain.