Firestorms: what to do in the face of atomic power fires

In June 2017, the first sixth-generation fire on the Iberian Peninsula occurred in Pedrogão Grande (Portugal): have we learned anything since then?

VICTOR RESCO OF GOD Professor of forest fires and global change at PVCF-Agrotecnio, University of Lleida PAULO FERNANDES Professor of forest fires, University of Trás-os-Montes and Alto Douro

In June 2017, our understanding of forest fires in Europe changed forever. On the 17th, the fire campaign began on the peninsula in Pedrogão Grande (Portugal). It did so with an extremely violent fire that devoured almost 5,000 hectares in the worst hour and claimed the lives of 66 people.

It was the first fire storm that we have evidence of in the Iberian Peninsula. At the moment of maximum intensity, the energy emitted by the Pedrogão Grande fire was equivalent to that of 27 atomic bombs per hour.

We write these lines when a wave of fires inaugurates the still incipient season in the Iberian Peninsula. We are in a situation that shows certain parallels with what happened in that fateful June 5 years ago. Will the nightmare repeat itself? Have we learned something?

Satellite image from June 18, 2017 showing the fire in Castanheira de Pera and Pedrógão Grande. /

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Extreme fires throughout history

Before addressing the issue, we would like to remind you that neither fires nor extreme fires are recent phenomena in nature. The first documented fires occurred 420 million years ago.

The first catastrophic fire of which we are aware, according to the current canons of what constitutes an ecological catastrophe, occurred in the town of Mayo, in Ireland, 350 million years ago. The megafire that occurred not only burned the vegetation, but also destabilized the biogeochemical and sedimentary systems to the point that the fish populations downstream were decimated.

Likewise, we are aware that fire storms (also called 6th generation fires) have occurred only rarely, although recurrently, outside the peninsula. The most recent near our geography occurred in 1949 in the French Landes, near Bordeaux.

What is new is the recurrence of these events. On a global scale, we are encountering an increasing frequency of extreme fires that some consider even unprecedented.

Causes of wildfires

Extreme fires result from having large accumulations of fuel or vegetation that are connected at the landscape scale. That is, continuous forest masses, without management or abandoned, and with hardly any disruption by agricultural fields.

Water stress, which results both from competition between trees (the result of poor management) and from droughts exacerbated by climate change, predisposes these forest masses to go up in flames.

When the ignition of these flammable masses occurs under heat waves, which make the atmosphere highly desiccating, or strong winds and slopes, the great fire is assured.

The night usually provides the window of optimal conditions to tackle the extinction of the fire. But climate change causes night temperatures to rise more than daytime temperatures, with a more than notable effect on extinction capacity.

Under these circumstances, the fire grows so fast that the energy produced can be several times greater than that emitted in an atomic bomb such as Hiroshima. In this case, the fire creates its own fire environment: its own propagation pattern, even altering the weather.

An insufficient answer

Our response to increased virulence is always the same: increase means. On a continental scale, the European Civil Protection Mechanism has been reinforced with more extinguishing resources, but they will always be a drop in the ocean during pyrocrises. More important than increasing extinguishing media is adapting your preparedness and response to pyrometeorological conditions.

In Portugal, the need to address structural causes linked to the territory was politically recognized and an agency for integrated fire management was created, with an increase in the budget for prevention. Other countries will be able to learn from the Portuguese experience and monitor the future results of this approach.

In Spain, always committed to more and larger planes, firefighters often have precarious working conditions. Taking advantage of its extensive knowledge to develop preventive actions in winter would be a more effective investment, although less effective, than buying large aircraft. Let's remember that, according to firefighters' calculations, more than 75% of aerial discharges are inefficient. Even the European Commission has recognized the need for a firesmart approach, but on the ground almost everything remains to be done.

Does the problem have a solution?

We will always have big forest fires. But we can reduce its probability, frequency and size if we reduce the continuity of the forest landscape and promote a mosaic of vegetation types and less accumulation of fuels.

In extreme weather conditions, management measures may not reduce the spread of fires, but they reduce the energy potentially released, which facilitates the work of the extinguishing media, reduces the severity of the fire and increases the resilience of the territory.

We must also urgently address climate change. Our way of dealing with the problem of forest fires, more means and less management of the territory, is leading us to a nuclear war against nature. And this is a war we are not going to win. We must look for the solution in forestry science and engineering and not in political slogans. The next firestorm on the peninsula could strike at any time.

This article has been published in The Conversation

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