"Friendly fire"... An ancient strategy to fight wildfires"

Writer: Marwa Badawi- Translator : Amira Gawdat
السبت 11 مايو 2024 | 10:03 مساءً
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The wildfire season began on both sides of the Mediterranean, and the first spark emanated from the countries of the Old Continent until it reached the Arab region. Amid statements by international organizations that 2023 will be one of the hottest years on the planet, expectations are increasing for an increase in the number of wildfires and the destruction of green spaces and trees.

Large areas of southern Europe are currently witnessing a record high temperature, reaching 44 degrees Celsius, accompanied by the outbreak of waves of wildfires in the Mediterranean basin, specifically in Spain, Italy, and Greece. The Spanish authorities estimate that about 3,500 hectares have been burned so far.

The situation is not much different in the Arab countries overlooking the Mediterranean coast. A number of fires broke out in more than one country, including Lebanon. The fire risk index has increased, according to the “Fire Laboratory” system issued by the Land and Natural Resources Program of the Lebanese University of Balamand. The risk map shows the high rate of fires, specifically in the forests and trees sector in the north.

With rising temperatures and active winds blowing in Syria, the frequency of forest and agricultural land fires has increased, especially in the center of the country. The fire season in Syria usually begins in late May and lasts about 15 weeks.

When heading south to North Africa, we find that Algeria recorded 97 fires within 16 states. Forest fires spreading across the country left dozens of people dead and forced hundreds of them to leave their homes.

After a barren winter season in which Tunisia suffered from drought and scarce rain, at least 300 people were evacuated by sea and land due to pine forest fires on the border with Algeria. The country also lost 470 hectares of forest during the fires in the city of "Maaloula" in the third week of July.

Causes of fires and its consequences

The summer of 2021 is one of the worst wildfire seasons in the world. Drought and low humidity, with record temperatures reaching 48.8 degrees Celsius, led to the outbreak of fires throughout the Mediterranean countries, especially Italy, Greece and Algeria. They resulted in the deaths of more than 100 people, and the burning of more than 620,000 hectares of land in July and August of the same year, according to the United Nations.

Therefore, the organization issued a report on forest fires in the Mediterranean region in 2021/2022, which fully addresses this environmental disaster, explaining the causes of the fires starting from scarcity of rain, high temperatures due to climate change, lack of respect for ecosystems, in addition to human activities that contribute to increasing gasses emitted into the atmosphere, and urban expansion near forest areas with high fire risks. 

The results of these natural disasters are people being forced to leave their homes due to loss of shelter and livelihoods or fear of more accidents. These fires also harm the natural environment or forests and negatively affect biodiversity and may cause human deaths. Among the most tragic forest fires in modern history are the 2021 fires in the tribal region of Algeria, which killed 90 people.

Fighting fires with fires

The UN University report states that fire is a natural part of the Mediterranean ecosystem, and allowing small fires to occur in a safe and controlled manner can reduce the likelihood of large, catastrophic fires beyond human control.

According to this approach, wildfires can be managed preventively; Instead of waiting for fires to start and then trying to put them out, we should start fires intentionally and let nature work on our behalf. Why ?

The UN report indicates that the model of extinguishing fires before they become dangerous, currently followed in the Mediterranean region, leads to counterproductive results. When a small or medium-sized fire is extinguished in an area, the unburned vegetation continues to accumulate, until it forms a layer of intensely, rapidly and uncontrollably flammable materials.

The “Fighting Fire with Fire” model works to reduce the risk of large fires. The idea is to deliberately start small fires, burning brush, leaves and straw, and removing shrubs that tend to shade, while keeping the forest or green space open, not closed and dense.

These controlled fires help restore and maintain open, green natural habitats, prevent catastrophic wildfires and destroy large trees, while at the same time taking advantage of the natural benefits of fire, such as reactivating some plants and trees, and removing shrubs that tend to overshadow.

This approach adheres to choosing the right timing and ideal weather to maximize safety for humans and animals, and to obtain the desired positive effects. That is because starting a fire early may not destroy the appropriate amount of vegetation, while fires occurring too late may affect living organisms, such as birds that nest in trees, amphibians, and reptiles.

This “Fighting Fire with Fire” approach is being applied at the North Carolina Botanical Garden, managed by the University of North Carolina where a series of controlled fires are set each year to manage wildfires and preserve rare plant and animal habitats in the Chapel Hill area.

Historical roots for the friendly fires

This technique was used for centuries by indigenous people in America and Australia, who deliberately set fires to grasslands to manage habitat. This activity stopped in modern times, and forests began to transform from more open, savannah-like forest habitats to dense, shaded, closed forests vulnerable to huge fires.

This technique aims to mimic nature safely, away from the repercussions of climate change and in order to preserve societies. Returning to nature also gives us more sustainable tools to better adapt to the environment and reduce disaster risks, such as reducing the amount of dead plants in forests, which help to cause fires using a variety of techniques, including allowing herders to enter forests and encouraging them to get rid of these plants in a safe way.

Increasing temperatures, drought and weather extremes are expected in the near future; Therefore, humans must build a “healthy” relationship with wildfires in order not to get out of control.

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