december 2017

Lessons learned when two linked conferences —  one focused on safety, the other on prescribed fires – invite a range of global experts to gather.

By Núria Prat, Mariona Borràs, and Xavier Úbeda

Professional conferences — where experts, practitioners and students gather — can be the genesis of new practices and ideas. This discovery process was multiplied when Barcelona hosted Wildfire Week, joining two key conferences, from January 31 to February 3, 2017. During five days, knowledge and experiences were shared among the global fire community on two different topics under the same umbrella of wildfires —gathering some 500 experts from 23 different countries, with seven keynote speakers and 112 oral and poster presentations, all of whom helped focus  new approaches for fire safety and prescribed fires in Europe and worldwide.

The 14th Wildland Fire Safety Summit (WFSS) of the IAWF, was co-organized by the Catalan Fire and Rescue Service and Pau Costa Foundation, and the first edition of the International Congress on Prescribed Fires (iCOPFires) was co-organized by the Catalan Fire and Rescue Service, the University of Barcelona and Pau Costa Foundation.

Participants gathered from a diverse mixture of emergency responders, fire practitioners and researchers, which supported multidisciplinary debates and gave voice to the many people who work to improve wildfire knowledge and practices. The presence of experts from other fields, such as education, public administration, private companies and non-profit organizations, also enriched the debates.

These conferences created highly valuable opportunities for getting to know each other; networking spaces and social events were crucial to create new synergies. There was also space for tools that help to normalize wildfires outside the fire community and stimulate morally neutral societal perception. For example, the art exhibition displayed in both events, ‘Incandescent Memories’ from Josep Serra Taragón, or the use of graphic recorder Maria Calvet who created live interpretive drawings during the keynotes.

14th Wildland Fire Safety Summit (WFSS)

After 15 years, the global wildland fire community was gathered again in Europe for the WFSS. This 14th edition engaged interaction and exchange of knowledge on wildfire safety. Over 260 experts, national and international.

The presentations given by the participants provided an overview of the current fire safety challenges and solutions. Here is a brief summary of the most relevant outcomes:

Keynote Speakers included:

Marc Castellnou (Catalan Fire and Rescue Service, SP) emphasized the responsibility of commanders to learn the lessons on safety and to develop strategic thinking. He stated that “fire safety should not be designed for the 98% of fires that are suppressed in the initial attack, but for the changing situations derived from the 2% of the fires.”

Anthony Petrilli (USFS-Missoula Technology Development Centre, US) explained the newest fire shelter technology, pointing that “the situations where the deployment of a fire shelter is needed must be avoided. There is no guarantee of saving a life using a fire shelter, but some lessons give a better chance of survival.”

Richard Thornton (Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC, AU) raised the challenges on fire safety systems for the future. He highlighted a key observation: “These are the seven most dangerous words: ‘we have always done it that way’. And ‘don’t cling to a mistake just because you spent a lot of time making it’.”

A graphic narrative of Richard Thornton’s talk at Barcelona Fire Week by Graphic Recorder M aria Calvet, @mariacalveta

Some key safety lessons voiced during the conference included:

  • Fire safety needs to be part of the culture; a way of thinking, not only a protocol to be followed.
  • Climate change, historical management practices and land use changes are leading to unprecedented extreme fire behavior. Given that new paradigm, in which fire behavior has the potential to exceed the capacity of the most experienced fire services, new training should be provided to achieve an effective safety risk mitigation strategy and avoid negative impacts on firefighters.
  • Sharing lessons learned between fire services is key to strengthen cooperation during fire emergencies and enhance safety.
  • Protocols work on steady scenarios. Uncertainty arises given sudden changes due to dynamic environments and then is when safety fails. Safety should be designed thinking on those factors.
  • Firefighter experience is what drives human behavior when unpredictable fire behavior hits. The necessary tools and experience to understand safety under the new paradigm should be provided to firefighters.
  • Technological tools are supports to improve firefighter safety, as well as to improve physical and behavioral responses to complex emergencies.
  • There is the need to redefine the crew mobility, focusing on more specific data to guarantee their safety.
  • The increase of WUI areas increase the vulnerability of citizens (case study of Funchal, Portugal 2016), and places citizens directly in the path of fire.
  • Both citizens and firefighters are under the threat of smoke during wildfires and prescribed burning, with the consequent impact on health. Smoke safety should be properly addressed.

International Congress on Prescribed Fires

Around 300 scientists and practitioners with a variety of specializations and affiliations contributed to an interdisciplinary and heterogeneous congress, to discuss about current scientific and fire management challenges:

  • The best practices on using prescribed fires as a management tool.
  • The spatial and temporal scales of the prescribed fire effects, immediately after fire, short-terms effects, medium and long-term effects. At different spatial scales from molecular changes, plot studies to catchments and landscape studies.
  • The influence of forest fires and their intensity and recurrence in Carbon cycling and climate change analysis.
  • The use of models to predict changes and recovery after fire.
  • Successful initiatives of practitioner associations and national strategies to conduct prescribed fires.
  • Societal perception, history and the roles of administrations.

Two field trips took place during the meeting: 

A pre-conference field trip co-organized by the Forest Sciences Centre of Catalonia and the GRAF team (Forest Fire Area of the Catalan Fire and Rescue Service). The participants visited the 1998 Solsones Wildfire, that consumed 27.000 Ha with an extreme behavior. The current understory fuel management treatments being applied in the area were evaluated and discussed.

The conference field trip to Olesa de Montserrat region where the GRAF team executed a prescribed burn, on a Life Project plot ( These practices are common in Catalonia as part of the firefighting training programs an also as a tool for forest management. The attendees participated in a series of onsite workshops to discuss the prescribed burn objectives and organization, the fire regimes and fire ecology of the Olesa de Montserrat region, the post-fire effects and the human dimensions and societal acceptance of prescribed fires.

Through a post conference survey, the participants proposed to tackle three specific topics in future conference editions: (1) transferring the existing knowledge to practitioners and politicians, (2) further implementation of prescribed fires as a management tool and (3) discussion of new research findings. Specific focusing examples include:

Transferring the existing knowledge to practitioners and politicians

  • Best practices on community acceptance, education and engagement.
  • Mechanisms to share knowledge on common practices, standards and education.
  • Raise awareness about the use of good fire as a way of reducing fuel loads and fire risk.
  • Rise awareness about the smoke effects on health.
  • Provide communication channels between the different scientist and practitioner groups to match the different aims and interests.
  • Human factors.
  • The adaptation of different socio-spatial contexts; provide a participative and inclusive approach.
  • Continue to perform prescribed fires in protected areas, with the objective to reach favorable conservation status for species and habitats.
  • Raise social perception of the use of fire as a cost-effective natural tool to preserve ecological features.
  • Balance between ecological evolution, prescribed fires and environmental impact.
  • The participation of the private companies in the prescribed fire sector in EU countries and the consensus with the local actors.
  • Land management practices and carbon balance.
  • Raise awareness about needs to protect the rural-urban interface and provide the appropriate training to the actors involved.

Implementation of prescribed fires as a management tool

  • Monitoring the evolution of prescribed fires and expanding the discussion about pros and cons adapted to the different realities.
  • Fire management techniques and novel ideas to evaluate training, surface managed and costs.
  • Challenges on conducting more prescribed burns and potential solutions.
  • Impacts, opportunities and benefits of conducting all the prescribed burns that are currently needed for vegetation and landscape management.
  • Developing prescribed fire as one accepted tool (as part of a group of tools) for effective land management.

New research findings

  • More scientific research is needed to help define which time of the year is more suitable for prescribed fires and take into account their effects.
  • Strengthen the links between research and practitioners through collaborations of more applied science.
  • Explore effective ways to communicate scientific results and perspectives to policy makers.

A special issue on the Science of the Total Environment journal is being prepared with contributions from the conference participants. Guest editors are X. Úbeda (University of Barcelona), P. Pereira (Mykolas Romeris University) and D. Badia (University of Zaragoza).

If you are in a fire-prone region with good international access, you could contribute to expand the fire community and help it move around the world by hosting future iCOPFires editions.

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BIOS: Núria Prat and Mariona Borras are with the Pau Costa Foundation. Xavier Úbeda is with the Department of Physical Geography and Regional Geographical Analysis, Universitat de Barcelona and a member of IAWF.