Editor’s Note: Chris Chambers is the Wildfire Division Chief at Ashland Fire & Rescue in Oregon. For 18 years Chris has been part of the planning and implementation of the Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project, or AFR, an all-lands restoration and wildfire risk reduction partnership that has resulted in 13,000 acres of work surrounding the community and in the city’s watershed. The AFR partners, led by Dr. Chris Dunn of Oregon State University, have employed cutting edge monitoring and modeling that has incorporated local expertise and community values into wildfire planning. In this blog, Chris shares some insights from a recent trip to the Andalucía province in Spain.
What if we knew 25 years ago that our wildfire problems would become a crisis? Could we have mustered the political, economic, technical, and societal will and resources to avert the disastrous losses we’ve experienced? And what if we know now (as we do) that for the next 25 years the trend will continue? Is the current investment of time and resources enough to flatten the curve? It’s hard to gain perspective on our own situation being so deeply involved in it but seeing another country’s struggle with wildfires gave me a rare chance to think about our own plight…and theirs.
I traveled to the province of Andalucía in southern Spain for a week with Dr. Chris Dunn of Oregon State University and Dr. Joel Iverson of the University of Montana to explore increasing wildfire size and intensity now gaining a foothold in Spain. Dr. Dunn and his colleagues at the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station have pioneered the landscape fire management tool called Potential Operational Delineations, or PODs. A key component of PODs, called Suppression Difficulty Index, was developed by Spanish researcher Francisco Rodriguez y Silva, who sadly passed away this year. Professor Juan Ramon Molina now leads wildfire research and applying the PODs methodology to Spain’s landscape along with PhD student Macarena Ortega, both of Cordoba University’s Laboratorio de Incendios Forestales, or LABIF, our trip sponsor. Dr. Dunn has collaborated with our team in Ashland to refine the PODs framework to fit our landscape and community, and provide prioritization and monitoring outputs for the Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project, an example we shared with university students and fire managers in Spain.
Southern Spain is in a tough spot; fire size and intensity are increasing, and the tools fire managers have relied on for decades (fuel breaks, aggressive initial attack) are more often not working to stop fires. Communities who have placed all their faith in fire suppression for their protection are not taking ownership of their risk, and mitigation is an uncommon practice in communities…even when agencies are encouraging it.
Dr. Iverson, an expert in risk and crisis communication who advises U.S. Forest Service leadership, presented both to the Andalucía TREX training and University of Cordoba graduate students about the “war on fire” paradigm: wherein citizens have no role or responsibility, fire agencies have all responsibility (and blame when things go awry), and soldiers/firefighters are expected to win the war and be seen as heroes. This puts firefighters in an impossible situation that we see playing out in our country as unrealistic expectations leading to burnout, mental health issues, and shifts to other industries.
True to form, the website of the regional firefighting agency encourages people to be familiar with its strategy, “la guerra del fuego”, or the war on fire. If you’ve been around a minute or two in this country, that should be familiar…as should the outcome.
We have yet to suppress our way out of our situation here in the U.S., and it seems obvious to me, at least, that Spain won’t either. Flipping this narrative is necessary to create realistic expectations of fire agencies and unlock the potential for people to be part of the solution. Due to key landscape and development differences, Spanish society could make real progress on the fire issue in short order.
The southern Spanish landscape is different from the western U.S. in many respects. The long history of humans intensively utilizing the land for agriculture and wood products means there are almost no native forests. Many features of fire control are olive or chestnut orchards, plowed fields, grazing lands, or barren rocky landscapes – all quite favorable and effective as fire breaks. Native species are present, though mostly in plantations and increasingly in abandoned farmlands. Forest management to facilitate suppression has also been intensive; carving up the landscape into pieces via fuel breaks (like permanent dozer lines, see photo below) is ubiquitous, though these firebreaks are failing as fire intensity increases. There’s ample opportunity to reinforce fuel breaks and connect them to orchards and other areas already low in fuels, but it’s not happening at the pace fire is accelerating. Increasing pace and scale…does that sound familiar?
One social dynamic that’s challenging Spanish fire managers is the movement of people from rural areas to cities. Lands used for agriculture for hundreds of years are being left fallow as people migrate to cities for jobs. Thick, brushy vegetation is reclaiming former farms, adding to fuel loads and leaving fire managers without tools in the toolbox to deal with absentee landowners. These private lands are not managed, nor do owners have the means to partner with the government on fuels reduction, a strategy that works for us here at home via various government granting programs.
One fire we toured outside the coastal tourist mecca of Málaga (picture Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous) killed a firefighter and burned over three more earlier this year. They haven’t had a wildland firefighter fatality in decades. The topography is steep and dissected. Fires are increasingly threatening communities, causing evacuations down narrow highways, and filling the air with smoke in the Andalucía province…and this isn’t an exception across Spain and most Mediterranean countries. And though the public is affected by fires, they are apathetic and (over)trust fire agencies to fix the problem while they live their lives as they always have. I see this all the time here in Oregon, people just want it to be like it was…and that’s simply not possible in the era of climate change. It’s hard to get people to accept that and adapt to changing reality. One huge factor in Spain’s favor is that most Spanish homes are constructed almost entirely of rock and stone. While that doesn’t totally preclude homes from burning, it certainly gives them a big leg up in the quest for home hardening.
The regional fire agency, INFOCA, composed of primarily year-round employees (vs a mix of seasonal and year-round) has built extensive knowledge of fire behavior and skill in suppression. We toured a fire where only a few firefighters were able to stop a high intensity head fire using almost exclusively backfiring from existing fuel breaks. They are adapting quickly to increasing fire intensity by prioritizing better suppression opportunities. However, increasing fuels treatment to create more effective fuel breaks isn’t yet a viable option at scale due primarily to cost, and I didn’t hear conversations about cost/benefit analysis of preventative work versus wildfire suppression and post-fire impacts. In the western U.S., we’ve had those conversations over the last 20+ years many times over – often learning the hard way that we need a significant infusion of capacity to get to a new level of fire adaptation commensurate with increasing risk and observed loss of homes and forests. My sincere hope is that they don’t have to experience the level of loss that we’ve seen here to finally muster the wherewithal to change course. Sadly, human behavior seems to lean toward sitting on our hands until it gets bad enough to easily justify action.
Chris Dunn and I talked about how southern Spain’s predicament is where California was about 25 years ago and subsequently many other states including our own. What would we do collectively if we knew two decades ago that we’d be in a wildfire crisis? Would we act more aggressively, put in many millions instead of the billions we’re paying now? And would any of that have worked even if we knew what was to come? Or will disaster continue to be the primary motivating factor needed to move the needle toward adaptation and avoiding future losses of life, property, and ecosystems? It feels like we’re finally moving in the right direction here at home with financial resources more appropriate for the scale of the problem, and I hope Spain can find that place more quickly than we did…assuming we’re at that place at all.