Changing the mindset on wildfire policy evaluation in Mediterranean climate regions

A recent article in "Environmental Reseach Letters" journal advocates greater focus and investment in mitigation, prevention and preparedness as a wildfire fighting strategy.

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Photo: Paulo M. Fernandes

A group of 22 researchers from the five Mediterranean-type climate regions (MCRs) across the world (Mediterranean basin, California, Chile, South Africa and Western Australia) argue that a strong focus on wildfire suppression is destined to fail in MCRs and recommend that policy and expenditures be rebalanced between suppression and mitigation of the negative impacts of fire. Their rationale is based on the following facts:

  • Fire suppression does not solve the problem: Despite extraordinary global expenditures on wildfire suppression in MCRs, most of the variations in burned area between years in MCRs is still explained by fire weather. Due to global warming, fire danger, burned areas and extreme wildfire events are expected to increase in MCRs and will be further exacerbated by ongoing changes in land use and management that increase the amount and spatial continuity of flammable vegetation.
  • The existence of a fire-fighting trap: Existing policies in MCRs – that have largely ignored climate warming and landscape-scale buildup of flammable vegetation – have led to the so-called “firefighting trap”: allocating to fire suppression most of the investment in fire management exacerbates the problem, as it contributes to ongoing accumulation of flammable vegetation. This, in turn, precludes suppression under extreme fire weather and results, in the medium to long term, in more severe and usually larger fires.

The authors conclude that no amount of investment in suppression will prevent extrem wildfire events.  “Success” – if it is measured by reductions in area of land burned in any given year – will actually mean failure in the long term, as extreme wildfire events are merely postponed. Consequently, we argue that policy effectiveness ought not be primarily measured by area burned, but rather as a function of avoided socio-ecological damages (and, sometimes, improved ecological outcomes).

This policy change does not necessarily equate to a decrease in fire suppression effort, but rather to more focus and investment in mitigation, prevention, and preparation, which are expected to enable lower firefighting expenditures in the future, as landscapes, structures and people become more fire-resilient. However, replying to each catastrophic fire season with ever increasing fire suppression expenditure, while disregarding mitigation and adaptation, will remain a major policy error.

Full reference

Moreira, F., Ascoli, D., Safford, H., Adams, M., Moreno, J. M., Pereira, J. C., … & Curt, T. 2019. Wildfire management in Mediterranean-type regions: paradigm change neededEnvironmental Research Letters.