Wildfires, also called wildland fires are uncontrolled fires in forests, grassland, or brushland. They have become a common association with climate change and are a frightening glimpse into what could become normal for certain geographies in the world if we cannot put the brakes on current global heating. While no wildfire can be labeled as caused solely by climate change, the climate crisis has been making the seasons in which wildfires occur longer and more intense. Rising temperatures have been steadily increasing since the industrial revolution in the 1800s when burning fossil fuels started and became a normal pattern of human behavior. As we all know, burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide which traps excess heat in the atmosphere; but how much has this really changed the patterns of wildfires? Nature has always used wildfires as a natural way to regenerate and renew land, so why have the last few years been considered “off the charts” and “abnormal”? Finally, is there anything we can do when planting trees to lower the risk of wildfires? These are the questions and themes that we will explore in this article.
Fires have been part of nature’s regeneration for millennia, to the point that certain plants and animals rely on periodic fires to maintain the ecological balance; to the point where maintaining certain areas of forest have required planned burns, something humans have been doing for centuries as a way of mimicking nature’s rejuvenation technique. There is a major difference between using fire to rejuvenate the forest to the “slash and burn” technique which can be used to clear forests for farming or other human activities. Planned burns may seem counterintuitive, but they are actually used to prevent larger, uncontrolled fires. Of course, all fires can become dangerous at some point, but the point is, nature needs fires to an extent to promote ecological health. For example, if dead plant matter covers the ground, it doesn’t allow organisms living in the soil or animals to reach nutrients. Fires are natural, and therefore an occurrence that nature has evolved around. They clear out dead plants or debris, and certain species of animals and plants require the benefits fire brings to reproduce and survive. There are species of lily that need fire for their seeds to germinate and certain pine tree seeds enclosed in pine cones also require fire to melt the pitch covering and release the seeds. Overall, fire is a necessary part of natural ecological regeneration, but what was once a manageable, natural cycle has morphed into annual terror and destruction. Why?
Rising temperatures as a result of human activity have affected nature in many ways. In particular, it has changed the natural cycle of wildfires. Climate change amplifies factors that create “the perfect storm” for a fire. Less rainfall and warmer air temperatures mean dryer foliage and vegetation in forests. If fire suppression and strong winds are added into the mix, we basically have a huge area of kindling waiting to be lit. One of the main and most dramatic changes has been the timing of the burning season. What was once almost predetermined has now become much harder to predict. Fire seasons are starting much earlier and burning for longer, and because of this, the intensity of the fires has also increased. Wildfires are also appearing much further north than they used to due to longer periods of the dry season, rising temperatures, and melting snow that means previously inflammable areas are now also at (fire) risk.
For example, this year Siberian fires amount to over 17 million hectares, which is almost double the size of Portugal. This fire is still spreading, its smoke has spread as far as the North Pole and it is the largest recorded in the history of satellite observation. The wildfires in the USA have also been staggering, with over 2 million hectares already burnt this year. In California, more than 420,000 people have been evacuated and the smoke from the fires is also affecting residents in Nevada. What is really scary about these fires is that since the year 2000, the intensity, frequency, and impact of wildfires have been the most devastating globally on record. Despite fires being a natural part of regeneration, this level wasn’t normal but perhaps is starting to be now. If there are dryer areas, less snow, less rain, and longer seasons, is there anything that can be done to reduce the impact of wildfires? Or is this a scary peek into the future as temperatures rise?
There is an old Dutch saying, “vookomen is beter dan genezen,” meaning “prevention is better than a cure.” When planting trees, considering wildfire risk and how to minimize it is important, and there are certain steps that can be taken to achieve fire resilient planting. When planting trees with fire prevention in mind, the three important parts to consider are species, configuration, and maintenance.
Species consideration is the first step. Some trees will ignite faster than others, meaning that certain species, like eucalyptus, catch fire more easily than say, Mediterranean cypresses or baobab trees. Obviously, planting native species is incredibly important, so sometimes following that structure means that planting a more flammable species of tree is necessary, which is where planting clusters of different species together becomes important.
We use technology when we plant trees for a multitude of reasons. Data-driven planting determines planting configuration regarding optimal density, species and the size of tree clusters. Configuration is very important, if the majority of trees are planted too closely, without clear lanes or patches in between, fire can literally leap from tree to tree, quite literally spreading like wildfire. Planting in clusters rather than close density and rows can alter this. Vulnerable trees can be surrounded by less vulnerable species, protecting them from being in direct fire lines. An area of land being planted should be assessed with fire risk in mind before planting. An analysis of risk can lead to a planting plan that again minimizes fire risk with smart, data-driven planting.
Maintenance is one of the most important ways of mitigating wildfire risk. Dead branches or trees automatically increase the risk of fire but pruning these takes away potential kindling. Weeds on the ground can allow the spread of fire, giving it a pathway from tree to tree, so mowing and maintaining the forest ground is also important. Finally, to link back to planned fires give nature a helping hand to rejuvenate, sometimes during a wildfire planned counter fires are used to combat further damage.
The video above shows one of our reforestation projects in Spain. The land was degraded by a wildfire in 2019.
Ultimately, once a fire is blazing, putting it out can be an enormous and destructive task but using this forward-thinking methodology coupled with combating climate change, we can hopefully reduce the risk of wildfires in the years to come. We need to do this to protect not only the livelihoods, land, and homes of people across the world but also to protect the existing wildlife and trees that are destroyed too. It can take up to 40 years for a tree to grow, but less than 20 minutes for it to burn in a fire. Fighting climate change and reducing emissions so we prevent further temperature rise is something we just cannot ignore anymore. Increased wildfire intensity is just one, very visible part of how climate change is changing natural ecological cycles in a destructive way. Finally, it is vital for us and for others planting trees at scale to consider fire prevention thoroughly, so we can break the cycle and ensure that the fires burning are not only manageable but beneficial and regenerative too.