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Portugal wildfire management in a new era assessing fire risks, resources and reforms

Mark Beighley, Albert C. Hyde

Executive summary. Portugal has one of the highest forest fire risk rankings in Europe. Fire researchers all point to the same combination of contributing factors: shifting demographics with population moving from rural to urban areas, changes in land use with more agricultural and forested areas left unattended and not being maintained, and fragmentation of land ownership patterns that discourage investment in forest management and fire planning. The trend of annual burned area for the last four decades confirms a new level in fire activity in Portugal, despite an increased investment in the amount of firefighting assets.
A much greater range in burning conditions can be expected into the future as demonstrated by the wide variation in climate and weather episodes experienced in Portugal over the last two decades. Some years experienced an extended period of higher severity burning conditions, often adding additional weeks on both the front and back ends of the traditional July through September peak fire season. Other years experienced cooler, moister summers. These years with very low annual burned areas have led to prematurely declaring success because of the increase in aerial firefighting assets, new policies and organizational reforms. History has now proven otherwise. The changes made were not sufficient to significantly alter the outcome during the hot, dry extended summer of the catastrophic 2017 fire year.
Climate studies now project even more disturbing developments, particularly for Portugal and other Southern European countries. Rising temperature and decreasing precipitation are now firmly established as the new normal and show no signs of abating in the near future. Indeed, the most recent report of the European Union Joint Research Center forecasts the situation to only get worse, especially in the Iberian Peninsula. These major changes in climate and seasonal weather patterns will place additional environmental stress on vegetation which, in turn, will spur an increasingly severe round of larger and more damaging wildfires.
Portugal's wildfire risk continues to rise ▹ The factors contributing most to the increase in burned area are those related to increasing fuel load and continuity across large landscapes and an abundance of human-caused ignitions. Scientists are now focusing on global climate change and its effect on regional summer weather temperature and precipitation patterns as the catalyst that will turn fire potential into actual catastrophe. For short periods of time, most notably during 2003, 2005, and again in 2017, burning conditions were so severe that Portugal’s fire protection system capability was clearly overwhelmed. Even milder summers are an important factor in this equation of increasingly larger burned areas because vegetation grows at an accelerated rate providing yet more fuel for future fires occurring in the next hot and dry period.
While seasonal climate variations and the occurrence of severe weather events are important in the development of destructive forest fires, they’re not the only relevant factors. A unique set of structural environmental factors have made Portugal extremely prone to forest fires. The fine scale geographic mosaic of less flammable vegetation patterns that once existed due to well-tended private and community agricultural plots are now overgrown with dense stands of highly flammable trees and shrubs. Marginally productive agricultural lands once converted to forest plantations are increasingly left unmanaged as too costly to maintain. The abandoned areas are overtaken by shrubs and woody species making the landscape increasingly uniform in burning characteristics. Ironically, areas that once stopped fires, now fuel increased fire intensity. In many areas of Portugal, the ingredients already exist for more disastrous large fires waiting only on the next severe fire weather event.
Another contributing factor that cannot be ignored is that 98% of all fires in Portugal stem from human-caused ignitions. To say “the Portuguese people are the problem” is not an understatement. Portugal, when compared with Southern European countries having similar fuel and weather conditions, has a disproportionately high number of human-caused ignitions relative to population. While the Portuguese dislike being compared to their Iberian Peninsula neighbor, Spain is five times larger with four times the population, yet has fewer total human-caused ignitions. When combining the effects of climate change and associated weather, fuel and vegetation conditions across vast landscapes, and the propensity of human ignitions, an almost incomprehensible range of fire years is possible from the benign to the catastrophic. In the next decade without long-term and sustainable intervention, the risk of an extreme fire year burning 500,000 hectares or more is growing.
Assessing Portugal's wildfire management reforms ▹ Over the past several decades, Portugal has been the subject of several reviews by fire experts. The recommendations have been relatively consistent, identifying four major areas needing improvement; (1) preventing unplanned human ignitions, (2) creating a structural fire defense system of fuel breaks and by reducing fuel load in critical areas, (3) improving firefighting capability by implementing perimeter control tactics and large fire management strategies and, (4) restructuring Portugal’s fire organization. However, in 2006, Portugal elected to go with a national strategy that emphasized increasing firefighting assets over making serious investments in fire prevention and fuel reduction. Since 2000, almost three times as much has been spent on suppression as was invested in prevention. Yet, the annual trend in area burned has continued on a steady increase despite all efforts to change it. Clearly, a new era of fire demands a more comprehensive and balanced strategy.
Since the devastating fires of 2003 and 2005, several attempts have been made to reform state entities to more effectively address the growing forest fire problem. Authorities and responsibilities have been juggled around in response to political posturing in what has been termed “successive restructuring”. It’s now clear that the existing structure of government agencies has not adequately addressed the growing fire problem in rural areas. What’s essential is the creation of an agency that specializes in all aspects of rural fire management. It’s also important that this new organization has authority at the same levels of government as those responsible for civil protection firefighting to ensure that new approaches and policies are receiving appropriate consideration.
The backbone of any firefighting system isn’t aircraft or vehicles, but firefighters. Unfortunately, numbers of professional and volunteer firefighters in Portugal have experienced a 33% drop in just 11 years. The two primary causes, increasing age and a general disinterest by young people, must be addressed. Firefighting is a physically demanding job for which a healthy, younger workforce is required. Increased pay is the most obvious improvement that’s needed to attract younger recruits to firefighting jobs in rural areas, but career ladders are also needed to retain older, experienced firefighters in key leadership and training roles.
Firefighting tactics also contribute to the wildfire problem. Of the fires for which a cause is known, 16% are due to rekindles. This number can range as high as 30% in some districts. The two primary reasons are: first a volunteer firefighter culture of only using hoses and water, staying on roads, and not using hand tools. Second is too many daily fires forcing brigades to move prematurely from one first intervention action to another and not checking suppressed fires to insure they are extinguished. This pattern can continue over weeks making most firefighters unavailable to return to check previous fires. Another workforce, such as the army, or some other method needs to be used to check suppressed fires and make final determinations that all fires are completely extinguished.
Renewing Portugal's fuel management and prevention efforts ▹ As fires become more intense, and faster spreading, civil protection firefighting forces become less effective. In this new era of severe burning conditions, future investments should be made that promote a more strategic, less reactive approach. Portugal needs to acquire a skilled force of technical fire specialists and meteorologists equipped with the latest remote weather monitoring and fire behavior prediction support tools. Also needed are a cadre of rural firefighters and commanders experienced in perimeter control strategy and tactics and proficient in the use of fuel and topographic mapping tools and technology to capitalize on every geographic advantage.
Portugal is aggressively moving to complete a 130,000 hectare primary fuel break system. But fuel break construction and commercial harvesting alone won’t result in sufficient fuel removal. Many flammable species that now choke forest understories need removal but have little commercial value. Increasingly, stands of eucalyptus go unharvested because the wood is not of acceptable quality for pulp. There’s a massive amount of biomass growing in Portugal that, if not removed and disposed of, will fuel the next series of catastrophic fires. Some success has been made in addressing this by constructing large, low emission, biomass fueled electric generation stations scattered about the country. Stations in the north are working efficiently while others further south, are not. Lessons learned from these experiences should be used to create a strategy that locates many smaller stations closer to biomass sources and potentially increase the electricity generating output.
While completely fire-proofed forests aren’t economically feasible, or realistic, they can be managed in a way that greatly improves their ability to survive fire. Unfortunately, fuel and vegetation risk reduction options come at a cost, either in upfront investments in fuel treatment or reduced profit at harvest. Forest owners need a collective push in the right direction with financial incentives designed to reward forest management practices that reduce fuel load. They also need more confidence that the fire response system can better protect their forest investment. By ranking reduced fuel load managed forests and agricultural lands as a higher fire response priority than unmanaged forests and abandoned lands, owners may be more willing to make fuel reduction investments.
Another significant obstacle to achieving a greater percentage of managed forests is the abundance of small forest plots and inadequate property records and ownership information. The Forest Intervention Zone (ZIF) is an approach established in 2005 to organize small forest holders and create a joint intervention for forest management and protection. Currently over one million hectares are included in 189 approved ZIFs. These are impressive figures, but in terms of actual results in fuel reduction, investments have not measured up. While ZIFs have had positive results in landowner identification and participation, several reforms are needed before any real improvement in landscape level fire risk can be achieved.
As a response to the excessive number of ignitions and the limited number of fire and public safety officers, Portugal needs to greatly increase citizen participation. National fire and safety awareness programs coupled with an anonymous fire reporting hotline telephone number can promote this. Portugal should also seriously consider implementing a “Reverse 911” cellular based phone system to warn citizens of impending dangerous situations like fast spreading fires.
There is no single game changing fix to the dilemma Portugal now finds itself in regarding the threat of catastrophic fire. Rather, the solution will involve numerous strategic improvements made over several years. It must be emphasized that changes to the Portuguese fire system be made in a reasonable and sustainable way that encourages collaboration and maximum participation from all levels of government, especially with municipalities, and truly engages the public. No matter which type of fire year Portugal experiences in the coming decades, catastrophic or benign, it must stay focused on improving the underlying conditions that put it at higher risk—expansive landscapes of highly flammable fuel and thousands of potential ignition sources.

(February 2018) 
Key: INRMM:14575846



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