ICTA-UAB to design participative and concurred forest fire prevention strategies

Scientists from the Institute for Environmental Science and Technology of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (ICTA-UAB) aim to design prevention strategies for forest fires occurring in the Montseny Biosphere Reserve through a citizen participation process.

Climate change may increase the intensity of forest fires and reducing their impact is a fundamental adaptation strategy. The increase in temperatures and prolonged dry spells, in addition to the current characteristics of the land and increased vegetation due to the abandonment of agricultural fields and urbanisation of residential areas very near to forests, have all elevated the potential capacity for fires to the highest levels. This situation often causes firefighters to face fires which are beyond their ability to extinguish and therefore forces them to prioritise their interventions.

In order to set down new ways of managing the land and better control forest fires, researchers at the Conservation, Biodiversity and Global Change Group of the ICTA-UAB have begun a pioneering project which receives funding from the Biodiversity Foundation of the Spanish Ministry for the Ecological Transition, through its call for grants for climate change adaptation projects. The project, which will last until June 2019, will include the participation of the main agents involved in fire management, such as the Catalan Fire and Rescue Service (CFRS), landowners, citizens and industries, with the aim of developing a participative prevention and fire fighting strategy capable of establishing the main economic, cultural and ecological values needing protection in the case of fires, and prioritising them collectively.

"Climate change is increasing the risks of forest fires in some areas of the planet. As we saw this past summer in Greece or California, only a few fires are enough to surpass a state's capacity to protect civilians", stated Dr Iago Otero, lead researcher of the project. "The final objective is to work on reducing this high risk and for society to decide what landscape values must be protected and how they can organise themselves to do so", he added.

The project will analyse types of fires occurring in the Montseny Biosphere Reserve and how these can worsen due to climate change. At the same time, the project will establish a series of strategic management points, i.e., key landscape areas in which management interventions (maintaining agricultural fields, extensive pastures, etc.) can help to reduce the intensity of future fires, offering thus possibilities for their extinction and minimising the effects they can have on the social value of the landscape.

The participative work sessions with all parties involved will allow determining the main landscape values to take into consideration and which strategic management points are essential for the protection of this biosphere reserve. "This will result in an agreed prevention and extinction strategy which can minimise the loss of landscape values registered during the participatory process. The project will reduce the number and impact of large forest fires, and will foster an institutional coordination of climate change mitigation and adaptation policies", Dr Iago Otero points out.

This project is based on the pilot study Democratizing wildfire strategies. Do you realize what it means? Insights from a participatory process in the Montseny region (Catalonia, Spain) led by Dr Iago Otero and recently published in PLOS ONE. The method behind this pilot study will now be replicated at a larger scale, since it has demonstrated that social participation in planning prevention strategies can reduce the risk of forest fires. The team led by Dr Otero, a former postdoctoral researcher from the Humboldt University of Berlin, organised a series of participatory sessions from 2014 to 2016 which served to improve the coordination among the different actors, as well as to help citizens express their views on the areas needing more protection in case of a forest fire.

This information was included in the fire spreading models used by the Catalan Fire and Rescue Service, which allowed to identify the strategic management points which could minimise impacts in the most valued areas. According to Dr Marc Castellnou, head of the group of specialists in forest fires at GRAF (CFRS) and co-author of the study, this pilot method is a first step towards the co-responsibility of society in managing forest fires. "Firefighters need society to become actively involved in managing emergencies. If not, the system we use to extinguish fires will collapse when faced with today's climate change problems", Dr Castellnou stated.

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Open access article link: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0204806

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Isabel Lopera
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0204806

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