March 15, 2022
“The 2021 Italian wildfires firefighting campaign, which mobilized the Italian National Fire Department throughout the whole country, ended on September 30. Since June 15, a total of 79,796 firefighting interventions have been carried out. That means 24,842 more fire protection interventions than last year” .
“In the first two months of the year, there have been 13 forest fires in Trentino. This is the first data coming from the Province of Trento Forest Agency” .
And more: “Italy is burning in the middle of the winter season. Since the beginning of 2022 fires have more than quadrupled compared to the same period of last year” .
Looking at the eloquent headlines of the press agencies, the Ministry of the Interior and local newspapers, it is clear that the forest fires situation in Italy is currently anomalous and potentially disastrous. The numbers speak for themselves. With a staggering total of more than 150,000 burned hectares in a single year, the extension of fire-derived forest loss in 2021 has increased dramatically compared to the average of previous years. The data coming from other historically fire-susceptible Mediterranean countries confirms that the exceptional increase is not limited to Italy (Figure 1). In fact, it is not limited to the Mediterranean region or Europe only but all over the world. Wildfire pressure is increasing worldwide.
Fig. 1: Wildfires in Mediterrenean countries in 2021 compared to the 2008-2020 period. Author: Matteo Gecchelin. Data source: EFFIS .
The causes of such increase have been examined by many recent studies. The development of climate conditions that are favorable to the trigger and continuation of fires, such as droughts and high temperatures, is one of key factors explaining the fires increase.
This phenomenon is growing not only in traditional areas susceptible to fires, but also in areas that have never been exposed to fires. While Mediterranean vegetation has adapted to the passage of fires (in ecological terms, they do not cause destructive effects and favor plants reproduction or lifecycle), temperate climate vegetation is not used to fires at all. Fires in alpine forests, such as mountain beech forests, are a rare exception and can severely harm the ecosystem . Indeed, the cool climate, good water availability and presence of understory litter and dead wood in these ecosystems prevent the ignition of fires. The fact that medium-size fires have hit these ecosystems in recent years indicates that the climate, ecological and land-use management situation is evolving.
If, on one hand, the change of climate and environmental conditions (which must be regulated by national and international climate policies) have determined the increase of fire risk, intensity and frequency, on the other hand, (unproper) forest fires management and prevention have affected fire risk exposure and vulnerability.
An eloquent quote that is in vogue among wildfires experts says that “fires are extinguished twenty years earlier” . Paraphrasing it, the management of forests and forests heritage, the prevention and training of forest firefighters, the planning of forestry and silvicultural interventions, the definition of fire risk indices and maps and forest-ecology research studies play a crucial role for fire risk mitigation.
While it is true that climate conditions are increasing the fire risk, also socio-economic and cultural elements are contributing to it.
To understand this, it is enough to think of the dramatic increase of the national forested area and forest biomass: +587,000 hectares and +18.4 % of biomass approximately in the last ten years . While acknowledging the environmental benefits of these overall 11 million forest hectares, we cannot forget that quantity is not the sole factor to consider. The quality and spatial distribution of the forest growth is also crucial. Spreading all over the Alpine area, unregulated forest growth is caused by mountain areas depopulation, marginal areas and mountain farming abandonment, lack of forest resources and infrastructures management, and a decreasing awareness of forestry issues by the citizens .
The true capacity to “adapt” to the altered climatic and territorial conditions lays in the practices connected to the new world where we live in. We must implement a series of bold actions aimed at improving forest management and wildfires risk prevention. We must stop treating wildfires as exceptional or as an emergency, and we must carry out planned forestry intervention to ensure a rapid and effective response. Doing so, we will be able to tackle the cause rather than the effect of the increased forest fire risk.
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Cover- and preview image: forest fire. Free-source photo by Ylvers on Pixabay.