“Fire risk reduction entails all strategies that lessen the number of fires, things like prevention and cooperation that help us achieve fewer and less destructive fires,” says Sébastien Lahaye, whose unique vision comes not only from his extensive research experience on large wildfires but also from two decades of hands-on experience as a firefighter. “Our purpose is to consider what must be done to reduce ignitions, limiting the risk of extreme fires” – he adds.
With these goals in mind, the FirEUrisk consortium is developing new methods to mitigate the potential impacts of wildfires, by integrating societal factors and communication into the equation.
The causes of extreme wildfires
In Europe, most fires are caused by humans. To understand why people are behind most ignitions, it is important to study the main causes leading to these events. Grouped into two categories, human-caused fires are either individual deliberate ignitions resulting from accidental uses of fire, or operations-based ignitions that may happen around energy and transport networks.
Many individual ignitions are caused by negligence or are motivated by social or land-use conflicts. To better understand these social determinants, the FirEUrisk consortium will engage and cooperate with different communities through participatory approaches. This participatory approach will deliver relevant data regarding the effectiveness of initiatives that communicate fire risk.
Balancing strengths and weaknesses of current approaches
“One of the best strategies to reduce extreme wildfire risk are prescribed burnings, that is, the use of fire as a tool. These controlled fires are common in some European regions and are already being studied as a possible solution for other areas” – says Sébastien.
For centuries, fire has been used for land management, and complete fire exclusion is neither feasible nor desirable. However, insufficient knowledge about the dangers that come with these practices is one of the main causes increasing the current risk of wildfires. To address this problem, in 26 demonstration areas and with the support of firefighters and expert technicians, FirEUrisk will promote public awareness, developing, testing, and evaluating training courses for landowners and citizens.
But first, the project will study the strengths and the weaknesses of current approaches. Prescribed burnings, silvo-pastoralism, mechanical brush clearing, fuel modification and dedicated bioeconomy, will be compared considering their ecological, economic, and social impacts. This assessment will evaluate the effects of these practices, and their relevance to different climate-change mitigation strategies.
Capitalising on previous fires
Current strategies for fire response face specific constraints, often related to the difficulty of responding to extreme fire conditions. To address these shortcomings, the FirEUrisk consortium will leverage on the knowledge and experience of both European, Australian, and North American partners involved in the analyses and modelling of past extreme fires. Using data provided by both Meteosat and the European Copernicus satellites, which model, track and evaluate smoke emissions and dispersion, efficient and more strategic fire responses will be created.
With this extensive body of knowledge, the project will develop science-based materials describing how extreme fires behave. These resources will be used to organise professional training courses, and for the elaboration of curricula and handbooks on landscape fire management.
“From researchers to policymakers, all stakeholders are needed. To implement new practises, we need people from different fields.” – adds Sebastien – “Everyone has a part to play. Policymakers, for example, are an important piece of the puzzle. Because you can’t limit fires if you don’t inform the population.”
Fire has tremendous implications for people’s health, buildings, infrastructure, soil, water, air, and biological resources, and different communities face varying degrees of vulnerability. To address these differences, FirEUrisk follows two strategies: the implementation of guidelines based on feedback gathered after extreme fire events, and the development of citizen-science initiatives, aimed at raising fire awareness.
“The most exciting thing is that we all come from different countries, and from different fields of knowledge. – adds Sébastien–” And now we have the chance to compare our fire risk assessments, and our results will be public. We want to screen what is already put into practice, the issues causing the current challenges and how can they be improved – making this information accessible to everyone. The idea is to develop effective guidelines so you can protect your own community whenever you need it and wherever you are”.
While the risk reduction strategies will be developed and tested at demonstration areas and then integrated into the pilot sites, the last stage of the project will consider how to map and integrate all these components.