Vast swathes of fire-ravaged pine forests need to be replanted and managed differently to avoid future blazes fueled by global warming, French experts have said, as wildfires – including several caused by arson – continue to burn in France and Spain.
Officials in the south-west department of Gironde said on Monday that two huge fires – one in La Teste-de-Buch which has destroyed 7,000 hectares (17,300 acres) of forest, and another in Landiras which has ravaged 13,800 hectares – were both under control, although still burning.
“After 12 days of fierce fighting, the two fires have been brought under control,” said regional government official Fabienne Buccio. She warned, however, that rising temperatures and winds meant some hotspots would inevitably flare up again.
More than 36,000 people evacuated since the start of the Gironde fires on July 12 have almost all been able to return to their homes. However, a new fire near Uzes in the southern Gard department has destroyed 40 hectares of land since Sunday, officials said.
In Brittany, police opened a formal investigation on Monday after saying that two fires which ravaged nearly 2,000 hectares of moorland in the Monts d’Arrée sector were both “certainly” of criminal origin, with points of ignition at regular intervals of 30 meters.
Meanwhile, several wildfires – some apparently started deliberately – continue to burn across Spain, which is believed to have lost nearly 200,000 hectares to the blazes so far this year.
Firefighters on the Canary Island of Tenerife are battling a blaze with a 30-mile (27km) perimeter that has torn through 2,700 hectares in the past few days, their task complicated by unfavorable weather conditions, including very high temperatures .
On Sunday, Catalan police officers, the Mossos d’Esquadra, arrested a man suspected of starting three fires. The president of Castilla y León, one of the hardest-hit regions, also said the fires appear to have been started on purpose.
“I have just spoken to the Minister of the Interior and I have informed him that the hand of man is behind the three new fires in Castilla y León”, Alfonso Fernández Mañueco tweeted Sunday night. “I want those responsible to end up in court.”
The regional environment minister of Castile and León – where blazes have already claimed the lives of a firefighter and a farmer – sparked an angry reaction on Monday after suggesting that ‘environmental fads’ may have contributed to the fires.
Juan Carlos Suárez-Quiñones told Cadena Ser radio that while the landscape and agricultural practices have changed, “some new environmental fashions in cleaning the banks and other things make it harder to clean the mountains”.
When asked if he said environmentalism made the fires worse, the minister replied, “That is not the cause. But that’s one of the things we have to work on…we’re all responsible for the forests.
Santiago M Barajas, a member of the environmental alliance Ecologists in Action, hit back, accusing Súarez-Quiñones of seeking to avoid responsibility.
“You are the one whose responsibility is the minister,” he tweeted. “Blaming environmentalists for your incompetence is truly awful.”
The regional environment minister’s comments echoed those made the day before by Juan García-Gallardo, the far-right politician from the Vox party who is vice-president of Castilla y León. García-Gallardo told El Diario de Burgos that “radical environmentalism and green policies have turned the countryside into a powder keg”.
The Spanish government, however, disagreed. Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska said it was clear that “climate change is playing a big part in all of these tragedies and emergencies”.
Last week, the Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, was even more blunt in declaring: “Climate change kills: it kills people, as we have seen; it also kills our ecosystem, our biodiversity, and it also destroys the things that we hold dear as a society – our homes, our businesses, our livestock.
As thoughts turned to replanting, French forestry experts were unanimous in saying that not only the choice of species but also much stricter forest management rules would be essential to fight future forest fires in the context of the growing climate crisis.
French President Emmanuel Macron last week promised a ‘grand national project’ to rebuild and regrow the stricken south-west region, but said it would necessarily have to be ‘under different rules’ dictated by global warming .
Commander Alexandre Jouassard of France’s civil protection service said a top priority must be easy access for firefighters. “Each time, that’s what makes our job so much more complicated,” he told Le Parisien newspaper.
“Abandoned woods, uncleared undergrowth, difficult to penetrate… this must change.” Experts note that well-managed forests like those in the Landes region further south, which suffered massive fires in 1949, have escaped recent fires.
“There is a proverb that says that at the beginning, a fire can be put out with a bucket of water,” said Jean-Yves Caullet, president of the ONF. “Forests at risk need well-maintained access roads, watchtowers and fire hydrants.”
One problem that needs to be addressed urgently, Caullet said, is that the tens of thousands of small private landowners who own 75% of France’s forests are only required to clear undergrowth, brush and dead branches if their parcel exceeds 15 hectares.
“When you realize that a catastrophic fire can break out on half a hectare, you see how vital it will be to encourage a much more collective approach among these small landowners – many of whom don’t even know they own a piece of wood,” he said. .
Christophe Béchu, France’s minister for green transition, said the government was planning an intensive campaign aimed at private forest owners, noting that clearance rules were only respected 30-50% of the time depending on the region.
Other measures include public information campaigns, starting in primary school, about the vastly increased risk of forest fires, with statistics showing that around 90% are caused – accidentally or deliberately – by humans.
Experts also urged local authorities to counter the major risk of fires in forested and residential areas, on the edge of large forests. A 2016 study in a southern area found that these account for 47% of the department’s fires, but only 15% of its area.
Finally, the choice of tree species should be paramount when replanting, which is unlikely before a full year has passed. New trees obviously need to be suited to the southern climate and also reflect a wider range of biodiversity, experts say.
“Monoculture is not good news,” Hélène Soubelet of the Biodiversity Research Foundation told Le Parisien. “We should also think about natural regeneration – species that regrow will be better suited to a post-fire landscape.”