In recent days, the emergency services have fought against the flames in different parts of Catalonia, Aragon, Navarra, Andalusia and Castilla y León. In the Sierra de la Culebra (Zamora) alone, an environmental enclave that is part of the Meseta Ibérica biosphere reserve, more than 30,000 hectares of forest have been reduced to ashes, and more than 1,250 people have been evicted from their homes. In Malaga 5,000 hectares have burned and in Catalonia 4,000. All this days before summer, the season in which the bulk of forest fires accumulate.
The State Meteorological Agency has confirmed that the high temperatures we have suffered in June are the highest since there are records, and forecasts a dry and hot summer season (0.5 degrees Celsius more than normal), the perfect scenario for these natural phenomena occur. The average for the last decade stands at 1,800 fires and 26,000 hectares burned per year, but we have already exceeded this last figure without having even reached the halfway point of 2022.
Extinction units fight against the fire in the Sierra de la Culebra. /
Although fire can devour a forest in two days, these natural areas can take between 5 and 200 years to recover. Or even more, given the current conditions of climate change, one of the causes of the increase in large fires. “Since 2020, there has been talk of 'sixth generation fires' to refer to those caused, in part, by climate change. These are characterized by an evolution that is difficult to predict and the collapse of the extinction system," explains Sandra Saura Mas, a researcher at the Center for Ecological Research and Forestry Applications (CREAF). “Natural causes represent only 10%, compared to 90% of fires that occur due to human intervention, whether due to negligence or will,” adds Serafín González, a researcher at the Galician Biological Mission (MBG-CSIC).
Other reasons are the increase in the extension and continuity of the forest, which no longer has as many open spaces that act as firebreaks due to the abandonment of agricultural and silvopastoral activities; the increase in the urbanization of natural areas, with the consequent human presence (high voltage lines, cigarette butts...); and poor forest management (clearing, pruning, clearing…). For example, the Sierra de la Culebra fire was caused by lightning from a dry storm, but was aggravated by poor forest management.
Extinction units fight against the fire in the Sierra de la Culebra. /
At a social level, fires harm public health, both physically, due to the release of toxic and carcinogenic substances that take place when the combustion of the forest is incomplete; and psychological, due to the loss of jobs and the disappearance of the landscape. «Any loss, even if it is for material reasons, such as the house or the landscape that one is used to seeing, implies a mourning. The devastation after a fire can lead to a major crisis characterized by fear, anxiety and uncertainty," says Helena Pascual, a psychologist who is a member of the Emergency, Emergencies and Disasters Working Group of the College of Psychology of Madrid.
Likewise, fire destroys public and private properties (houses, warehouses, companies...) and damages the economy of the territory, by directly affecting the productivity of the primary sector (agriculture, livestock...) and ecotourism. The observation of the wolf in freedom in the Sierra de la Culebra, for example, attracts more than 3,000 tourists a year, with an average stay of five days in the observation areas and an approximate cost of between 38 and 65 euros per person and day, according to data from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, Food and Environment, some benefits that the burned landscape endangers.
Ruined have also been, at least, a thousand of the 5,000 hives whose honey live about 100 families in the area. And where before mushrooms abounded, such as boletus edulis and boletus pinícola, which contribute to the mycological richness of the territory, now there are only ashes. The aggravating factor is that some of these species take up to 50 or 60 years to reappear.
The soil is the most critical victim of fires, as it is the basis of all terrestrial ecosystems. Fire affects their properties and their productivity, which favors erosion, loss of nutrients and alteration of the vegetation. “A centimeter of burned soil can take between 100 and 200 years to recover. In addition, the layer that is lost, which is the most superficial, is the most valuable and fertile. For this reason, if the damage is significant, we must prevent it from being aggravated by erosion," says González.
The flora, for its part, responds to fire depending on the abilities of each species to tolerate it and the regeneration mechanisms it possesses. «For example, resprouting species (eucalyptus, juniper, holm oak...) are capable of growing rapidly after burning. Others can germinate because fire does not affect their seeds. Those that die and do not reappear is because they do not have any of these strategies, "says the CREAF specialist.
A dead deer as a result of the fires in the Sierra de la Culebra. /
As for the fauna, the animals that especially suffer the ravages of the fires are those that cannot flee, as do the birds and large mammals; bury themselves, as ants do; or be saved because they are in a protective vital phase, like the chrysalis of a butterfly. “In general, the mortality mainly affects amphibians and reptiles”, says Saura, “and also the young”, adds González.
As if that were not enough, fire is likely to destroy part of the area's historical-artistic heritage. "For example, there have been cases of petroglyphs that, due to the temperature shock suffered by the rock when the fire passes, the surface of the rock flakes off and the engravings are lost," says González.
After putting out the fire, the priority is to make a damage assessment, given that the same fire affects each area differently depending on aspects such as the density and type of vegetation or the orography of the terrain. This will allow prioritizing intervention areas and taking the most appropriate measures for each ecosystem. «The damage produced is not usually homogeneous. Some fires are fast-moving and burn a lot of surface area but little ground. In other cases, the foliage is scorched but not consumed and, falling to the ground, creates a protective 'blanket' against rain. Both scenarios allow the forest to regenerate more easily without the need for human intervention," says González. If necessary, some actions that can be carried out are the placement of a layer of straw as an artificial 'blanket' on the ground, the reintroduction or reforestation of species or the removal of standing dead trees.
A man observes the Sierra de la Culebra after the extinction of the fires. /
«If the agreed management objectives imply a change in land use, such as starting agricultural or livestock activities due to local socio-economic needs, then the actions will be more transformative and will not so much ensure the recovery of the previous vegetation, but for a new ecosystem in accordance with the objectives”, says Saura.
At the same time, the colonization processes by the fauna will also begin. For example, several studies have shown that, after a fire, species of birds appear that did not previously exist in that area. What is very difficult to counteract is the damage that these phenomena produce in the atmosphere due to the release of CO2 and other toxic gases that contribute to aggravating climate change.
An ineffective prevention system
Specialists remind that, in the fight against forest fires, prevention is essential. "Investing in prevention is cheaper than going every summer to put out fires," says González. «What is recommended is to approach a mosaic model in which different species of vegetation are mixed and extensive livestock farming that generates patches and breaks the continuity of the landscape. What will not work are the traditional plans of thousands of hectares planted with fast-growing but highly flammable species, such as pines or eucalyptus.
Both he and Saura also point to the need to make a greater commitment to environmental education, aimed at children, but also adults. "You have to explain to people the multiple damages caused by fires, because the vast majority don't know about them, and nobody is interested in conserving what they don't know about," says González. “It is still a pending task. The last public awareness campaign in all of Spain was 'Everyone against fire', 32 years ago”, laments González.