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Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - IRI THESys

The transformative power of fire

Due to rural-to-urban-transformation, the risk of wildfires in Mediterranean areas is increasing. This leads to a state of immense civil emergency. Iago Otero, postdoctoral researcher at IRI THESys, investigates how societies can adapt to that new risk – and how societies might change.

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"Fire is not only an element, but also a process of and a symbol for transformation, both on an ecosystem level and a personal level. Just as the forest changes, I can change myself. In a way, fire helps us to better understand our environment and human nature", Dr. Iago Otero Armengol explains his passion for researching wildfires, which has led him to the topic of proper fire and landscape management in Mediterranean areas.
Iago Otero, postdoctoral researcher at IRI THESys since February 2014, grew up in Catalonia (Spain), a region with an increasing risk of wildfires. Otero has a background in environmental studies and used his PhD thesis, conducted at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, to explore why Catalonia is prone to wildfires. "The reasons can be attributed to the rural-to-urban transformation that occurred in Mediterranean mountain areas within the last decades. Countries like Spain, Italy or Greece changed from mostly agrarian regions with a landscape made of forests, fields, pasture land and villages to mostly industrial and post-industrial regions. People have moved from the countryside to the city in order to work in the industry instead of farming", says Otero.

Due to abandoned farmlands, recovered and expanded forests and growing cities, this set of social-ecological changes led to the current landscape characterized by different types of areas directly adjoining each other without any protection in-between. On one side, there are fuel-covered woodlands with high amounts of flammable material, on the other side there are vulnerable urban areas. That creates a severe risk and an immense threat for the population. This dangerous situation is aggravated by climate change, another key factor in that scenario. "Firefighters have realized they cannot deal with such a civil emergency, and that's not an issue of how many helicopters they have", says Otero. Therefore, new strategies are essential for vulnerable regions.

The fire readers: A new fire unit in Catalonia

Iago Otero's current research project explores how societies can adapt to an increasing risk of wildfires. He has chosen Catalonia as a case study, focusing on a regional experiment initiated by the foundation of the special firefighting unit GRAF within the Catalan firefighters in 1999. Its task is to advise firefighters on the best strategy to manage wildfires.

1st August 2014. A lightning fire was intentionally let burn under controlled conditions. Source: Bombers de la Generalitat de Catalunya

1st August 2014, La Llacuna. A lightning fire was intentionally let burn under controlled conditions. Credits: Joan Herrera/Bombers de la Generalitat de Catalunya

"GRAF has several units patrolling every day in high risk areas, always ready to give support in the event of fire, whereas another unit is based at the firefighting headquarters with access to all relevant information such as weather conditions or fire engines' location in order to coordinate operations", says Otero. The scientist spent the summer of 2014 accompanying one GRAF team in Southern Catalonia. During his fieldwork he conducted participative observation and interviews with various actors, ranging from GRAF members to other firefighters, local forest protection groups and authorities. According to Otero, GRAF is very influential due to their vast knowledge: "Their expertise is based on experience resulting from fighting all fires during the last 15 years", says Otero. "That gives them the ability to analyze fire behavior, both in real-life situations and through computer-based simulations. Furthermore, they are in constant contact with other experts worldwide. Their experience and knowledge affords them the ability to influence decision makers and the landscape itself." One example from last summer shows how GRAF's decisions will affect the Catalan landscape during the next decades. During a wildfire caused by a lightning, they suggested to let a certain area burn while waiting for the fire at another point due to the risk for the task forces. The suggestion was accepted. "They sacrificed 1000 hectares in order to save another 5000. It was a trade-off and of course a hot topic in the region", says Otero.