How democratic participation can reduce wildfire risk
A pilot study shows how social participation in wildfire prevention planning can reduce risk
Recent wildfires in Greece, California and elsewhere show how wildfire risk is becoming increasingly problematic. Climate change and land-use changes are some of the main reasons behind this trend. Despite efforts to improve wildfire policies, a small number of wildfires overcome the suppression and civil protection capacity of the states, leading to tragic outcomes. A paper now shows that wildfire intensity and the loss of landscape values can be reduced through the participation of stakeholders and citizens in wildfire prevention planning. Led by the Integrative Research Institute on Transformations of Human-Environment Systems (IRI THESys) at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, the paper was developed in close collaboration between researchers and firefighters. It has been published in PLOS ONE in October 2018.
“We have learned how to improve wildfire risk management by making it more democratic” says Iago Otero, former postdoctoral researcher at IRI THESys and lead author of the paper. By developing a pilot method, Otero and his colleagues found out that integrating the landscape’s social, economic and ecological values into the Fire Departments’ models can contribute to adapt wildfire management. Otero’s team organized a series of participatory workshops and exhibitions in the Montseny Biosphere Reserve, a region of Catalonia (Spain) where the study was conducted between 2014 and 2016. „On the one hand, these sessions served to better coordinate the different stakeholders such as the fire department, the fire prevention services and the forest landowners. On the other hand, stakeholders and citizens could express which areas and landscape values should be given priority in the face of wildfire risk“ says Otero who spent several months with the Catalan Fire Department for his research project at IRI THESys. The central valley of the study region turned out to be the most valued one due to the existence of residential areas, an important tourism industry, and its potential for bioeconomic development.
All information was finally integrated into the wildfire spread models that the Catalan Fire Department’s wildfire fighting specialist group GRAF uses to manage wildfires. This allowed the identification of priority management points where a reduction of fuel load was planned in order to reduce wildfire intensity and minimize its impacts in the most valued area. These planning proposals were agreed upon with the stakeholders in the final workshop of the project, together with coordinated measures to implement them. According to Marc Castellnou, head of GRAF and co-author of the article, this innovative procedure was a first step to explore how society can take responsibility for wildfire risk reduction. “The Fire Department needs that society becomes an active part in emergency management, otherwise the extinction system collapses”.
The paper also points out that democratizing wildfire management entails a transformation of the landscape itself and of the society that shapes it. „To further reducing wildfire risk, a less combustible landscape is needed“ concludes Otero. This is why a number of landscape management proposals emerged in the participatory process such as enhancing sustainable forestry and extensive grazing, as well as promoting the trade of local products like biomass or cheese. These proposals are considered to have the potential to create such a landscape, because they convert the excess of vegetation into sustainable products with added value for the region’s communities. However, the paper stresses that implementing these measures would require re-organizing the socioeconomic activities and reversing the land abandonment experienced by the region in the last century. This is easier said than done. Strengthening the transformative potential of participatory wildfire planning is a challenge that remains for future experiences.
Dr. Iago Otero
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
Democratizing wildfire strategies. Do you realize what it means? Insights from a participatory process in the Montseny region (Catalonia, Spain)