This text draws upon material from the “Bushfire Front”, Western Australia
Fixing Wildfires Well
Statement / Fact Sheet / Opinion Paper
This is a considered response by a group of fire management specialists, some of whom are also firefighters, to the reports and coverage of wildfire events in past years and in 2019. The coverage has consistently failed to draw attention to the options for solution to large damaging wildfires that the fire management community is advocating. There have been media articles, television coverage, social media flurries, politician’s statements and press releases contributing to give a populistic and unfortunately distorted view of the wildfire reality. Society needs the ideas and thinking from fire management experts, wildfire fighters and scientists properly represented so the criteria for wildfire mitigation are sound. We invite journalists and public figures to take into consideration the concept expressed here and help evolving a vision and the mission to reflect on society values and protect them from damaging wildfires. Only this way we can make the difference.
A high number of recent articles in the Media paint a desperate picture: “devastating” wildfires are “the new normal” because of climate change. The fire season is now longer, intense wildfires cannot be stopped and immense damage is being done. According to the EU: “The price of inaction on climate change will increasingly be paid in lives lost and communities shattered. The EU has introduced the rescEU fleet: a reserve of firefighting planes and helicopters that can be deployed anywhere in the EU, anytime. This echoes the comments made in the wake of wildfires that burned towns and villages in Greece, Spain, Portugal, Germany, California, Chile and continue burning in Australia. The conditions were described by authorities as “unprecedented”. Communities and societies feel helpless and that the situation is hopeless.
In the view of most wildfire experts the basis of the problem is a combination of drought, fuels and lack of resilience, the capacity to respond to a wildfire and recover from it. Droughts are an inevitable component of Australian, African, American, Asian and European climates. If you add high fuel levels the result is always uncontrollable wildfires. But notably even under windy, dry conditions, fires in areas with low fuel levels are more easily contained. . Strategies to face wildfires now and in the future will require improved resilience of both ecosystems and society. Simplifying things a little, there are broadly two options for responding to this “unprecedented wildfire scourge”.
Being able to blame the climate for unstoppable wildfires is a politically-beautiful strategy, unless your government’s position is that climate change isn’t happening, as it absolves governments, the private sector and society of accountability.
To fix the wildfire threat in part we do need to fix the climate. We have to fix the climate for many more reasons than wildfires!! This will be accomplished by reducing/eliminating emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 into the atmosphere, to be accomplished by measures including generating power by wind, solar and alternatives, reducing fossil fuel use, and increasing the sustainability of modern societies.
The outcome of these measures is presumed to be a return to cooler, wetter and less windy weather. As a result, the wildfire threat will be reduced. However, it is still unclear in climate science how strong the link is between global warming and drought and more importantly the promised outcome cannot be achieved overnight. It is likely to be 20-30 years before today’s reductions in CO2 emissions will “fix” the climate. Over those years we will continue to be faced with lives lost and communities shattered by unstoppable wildfires.
Governments are increasingly being influenced by the media and the aviation industry to put their faith in water bombers with the result that European wildfire management is manifested in the rescEU approach. It is understood and clear that even the world’s mightiest fleet of water bombers cannot slow the progress of a wildfire in heavy fuels.
The limits of suppression for ground based and aerial firefighting equipment is low with intense wildfires exceeding this limit by 4 to 10 times or more. Nobody blaming climate change for unstoppable wildfires seems to appreciate this irony: on the one hand there is a claim that climate change has made fires unstoppable, but on the other hand the assumption that if we have enough water bombers the unstoppable fires will be stopped. More aerial resources will not improve the safety of communities, being aware of the risk around you and being prepared does that. To achieve this landscape management is needed.
Implementing fire management requires governments to move away from the current approach, based on putting wildfires out after they start – firefighting, and focus on reducing wildfire intensity – fire management. This makes fires easier, safer and cheaper to control and reduces their negative impact. The knowledge on how to manage and contain most types of fires and wildfires is there. Creating more safe environments for firefighters and citizens can be done well before the wildfire happens through landscape management. It is a responsibility we all should share.
The key strategy is to shift investment from firefighting and emergency response into improving resilience, reducing risk and damage mitigation (including fuel reduction burning and always meeting the economic and ecological expectations of land owners). The outcome will not be fewer fires, but wildfires with less damage, smaller, less intense and mostly easier to suppress. Notably in fire and wildfire policy settings there is at the moment a paralysis about landscape management and prescribed fire that dominates in many developed countries and most if not all European states.
Those who support this approach and promote the adoption of wildfire and land management that focuses on resilience, preparedness and damage mitigation, recognise that this has more advantages than disadvantages. The benefit is immediate. Land managers/owners can get out there, reduce wildfire fuels in potential fire grounds and improve wildfire resilience in threatened communities. Things will start to get better straight away, with substantial economic benefit. An ‘ounce’ of wildfire damage prevention is much cheaper than trying to put wildfires out and then rebuilding in their wake - ‘tonnes’ of cure. This approach has been tried and tested and found to work.
There are hurdles. Fire prevention and reducing wildfire risk is not attractive. Implementation takes time, consultation and engagement with the entire community and understanding of fire causes, socio-economic drivers, history, cultural and ecological influences. Nobody gets any credit for a disaster that does not happen and wildfire is ultimate theatre, with swooping water bombers, firefighters putting their lives at risk, forest infernos, houses in flames, farmers shooting burnt sheep in blackened paddocks, funerals with bagpipes, and so on. Media, politicians and celebrities jostle for position and coverage.
There is a way through all this confusing nonsense. Adopt a set of strategies that prevents a wildfire from becoming nasty – and does so soon. We know how to manage fuels in forests and bushland, and how to increase community resilience in wildfire-prone areas, and we know that these strategies work and can be implemented at very low investments consistently applied through time in stark contrast to the costs of the water bomber approach.
We should seek to understand fires and invest in the landscape approach, not simply because they will be effective in reducing wildfire disasters, but because they will work irrespective of projected climate change.
Addressing land use and fuel management is IMPERATIVE under projected climate change.
Resilient Landscapes – Adapted Communities – Adequate Response
This text draws upon material from the “Bushfire Front”, Western Australia
This statement is supported by (email your declaration of support to
alexander.held (at) efi.int )
1. Alexander Held, Senior Expert, EFI Resilience Programme
4. Craig Hope, Wildfire Officer South Wales
5. Ciaran Nugent, Fire Management Ireland