Fighting fire with fire: 5 facts on reducing Mediterranean wildfire risk

  • 2022•11•03     Bonn, Germany

    Drought and low humidity combined with record-breaking heat of up to 48.8°C (119.8°F) led to fire outbreaks across the Mediterranean countries – including Italy, Greece, Algeria and Turkey – killing more than 100 people and burning more than 620,000 ha of land in July and August 2021. How can we cultivate a healthy relationship with fire for the future?

    1. Let it burn

      Fire is a natural and essential part of many ecosystems. Rather than implementing a fire suppression policy that deprives ecosystems of a natural process, introducing management strategies that use fire as a tool can be a significant and mutually-beneficial way to reduce the incidence of megafires. One way to do this is to let naturally occurring fires do the work for us, where a fire is allowed to burn in designated areas and is only managed once it crosses a certain threshold.

    2. Integrate crops and livestock into forests

      One of the main issues fueling fires is the accumulation of undergrowth in the forest. Allowing goats, sheep, cattle or pigs to feed on the forest’s understorey is a nature-based wildfire control tool that also supports local economies and maintains local jobs, preserves cultural landscapes, contributes to habitat conservation and sustains local food production.

    3. Land-use planning is key

      Landscape diversification is fundamental for avoiding extreme fire events. In the past, agricultural fields and grazing lands in the Mediterranean served as “fire-resisting zones” around villages that ensured wildfires couldn’t spread into town. Green belts consisting of vineyards, orange and lemon orchards, or well-managed olives groves can act as firebreaks by separating more flammable forest fuels with less flammable managed areas. By mixing different land uses, nature can substantially impede the spread of fire.

    4. Build according to risks

      Fire is still dangerous for people, so wildfire management should also focus on building regulations. Governments can, for example, require homeowners to keep certain landscape conditions around their houses to help prevent fires from damaging them. They can also limit the rights to build in certain areas or introduce regulations on certain building materials.

    5. Cooperate, communicate, coordinate

      Mitigating and managing disaster risk always involves cooperation and communication between many different groups. In terms of fire risk, improving coordination between fire and forestry departments will allow for more effective response plans. Engaging the private sector, civil society organizations and local communities in designing wildfire responses and mitigation actions helps establish clear roles and tasks in preventive fire management.