Adaptation through integrated fire management
Climate change projections (EEA-Indicator Assessment on Forest Fire, 2019) suggest substantial warming and increases in the number of heat waves and droughts across most of the Mediterranean area and more generally in southern Europe. These changes would prolong the duration and worsen the severity of the fire season, further increase the risk areas and the likelihood of large fires breaking out, as well as the possibility of spreading consequent erosion and desertification. The process of littoralization, which since the second half of the 20th century has marked the abandonment of villages, agriculture and livestock, and the concentration of population and activities in a narrow coastal belt throughout the Mediterranean, is particularly pronounced in Croatia. Abandoned hinterland is taken over by forests (mostly high-flammable pine forests), maquis and garrigue.
Countries in southern Europe concentrate most of the European annual burned areas experiencing longer seasons at fire risk and more severe fire danger. Larger and more damaging fires are challenging the suppression capacity of many wildfire protection programmes across Europe. Wildfires primarily affect forestry, biodiversity and ecosystem service sectors, but public health, agriculture, energy production and tourism may also be impacted, causing damage to property and loss of life.
The interactions of climate change with vegetation cover and fire regimes should be understood and appropriately considered in fire management. It is necessary to know the impacts of regional climate change on ecosystem properties and fire regimes to be able to adapt fire management plans and policies, taking into account changes in fuel and vegetation type, burning conditions or additional fire risk due to climate change.
Fire management refers to the possibility of land management included in the IPCC special report on climate change and land aimed at safeguarding life, property and resources through the prevention, detection, control, restriction and suppression of fire in forests and other vegetation. It includes both wildfire control and prescribed and controlled burning that can be applied to reduce vegetation fuels and avoid the risk of large, uncontrollable and destructive fires in forest areas. Some sectors that already use controlled fire as a way to facilitate land use are agriculture, forest resources management, and pastoral and wildlife management. Prescribed burning is technically demanding and it is a highly debated practice, experienced in several countries of Southern Europe, including Italy as one of the pioneers in the 1980s. In Croatia, the form of controlled burning is carried out in the northern coastal counties along the railway belt, while in the south the first controlled burning was carried out in February 2021 with the aim of restoring lawns (Dinara back to life, 2021). Although the Law on Sustainable Waste Management as well as the Ordinance on Agrotechnical Measures prohibit the incineration of plant waste in agriculture and forestry, traditional incineration in agriculture is still carried out in Croatia. Such practices are often the cause of fires in the coastal regions of Croatia.
Holistic solutions to manage wildfire risk in fire-prone areas are encouraged by the European Commission (2018) by proposing a multipurpose strategy that will appropriately consider the competing demands of forest uses with the potential risks they may involve. A holistic and integrated approach is required because wildfires affect a wide range of sectors and systems, such as forestry, agriculture, livestock, tourism and public health. It has a particularly negative impact on climate change, because the function of the forest in carbon absorption is interrupted and instead we get new carbon emissions during a fire. Integrated solutions for fire management should take into account different sector policies, in order to maintain or increase the safety of people and to ensure a balance between economic growth, ecosystem services and biodiversity objectives. Human, physical and ecological elements are part of the integrated fire management approach that combines social, economic, cultural and ecological evaluations. A multi-risk approach to address interactions/amplifications with climatic and non-climatic drivers is also needed.
The integrated approach links the four steps of emergency crisis management: mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. However, in terms of disaster preparedness, in Croatia only 2% of funds are invested in prevention, while 98% is spent on operational capacities for disaster response (Government of the Republic of Croatia, 2019). The importance of shifting the focus from fire suppression to fire prevention and recovery has been recognised, suggesting integrating pre-and post-fire management to reduce fire risk and its impacts. Various EU funded projects, especially in the Mediterranean areas provided key knowledge in this aspect (PREFER, FORESTERRA, FUME, FIRE PARADOX, PROTECT, HOLISTIC, READINESS). In Croatia, the preparation of the National Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction is underway. This strategy and local plans provide the possibility of cross-sectoral action where it would be of particular importance to create a basis for easier inclusion of fire prevention in spatial plans, in landscape protection plans as well as in sectoral plans. Some examples are the revitalization of old olive groves or, for example, the combination of new bike paths with firebreaks.
Sustainable forest management practices are thus needed particularly in fire prone areas, including: (i) actions favouring resistance and resilience of forests to fires, (ii) establishment and maintenance of firebreaks, forest tracks and water supply points, (iii) appropriate choice of tree species less vulnerable to fire and climate change in general, (iv) fixed forest fire monitoring facilities and (v) early fire detection communication equipment. At the interface area between forests and urban areas, innovative solutions for sustainable management of fire are, for example, explored within the GUARDIAN project that proposes the use of recycled water from an urban Waste Water Treatment Plant for fire mitigation and protection. Providing water for firefighting in populated areas that do not have a water supply system in Croatia is a special challenge for firefighters. The existence and maintenance of reservoirs, retentions and ponds could help in this regard.
Technology for fire monitoring and detection has greatly improved and different tools are available for warning about fire in about “real-time” conditions, both at large scales based on satellite imagery and fire information systems (e.g. EFFIS, part of the Copernicus Emergency Management Service), and at local scale, e.g. using cameras or drones. The latter can provide information on forest structure, composition, volume or growth, and biomass, and give precise information on fire location, dimension, and evolution to be most effectively prepared for fire suppression and identify areas to be evacuated.
Awareness-rising activities to promote responsible behaviours in fire prevention and proper response during emergencies can facilitate the success of fire management. To this end, adaptation should adopt an inclusive approach involving local communities in the designing and planning of prevention measures (community-based adaptation). Emphasis may be needed in technology transfer, education, training and scientific cooperation, and in enhancing abilities to strengthen fire management organizations and capabilities.
Costs and benefits
Integrated fire management helps, especially through sustainable management activities, preserving forest ecosystems and the related ecosystem services. Fire prevention activities have a positive impact on saving human lives, housing, infrastructure and goods. It can also reduce haze pollution, which has significant health and economic impacts. A synergy with mitigation should also be considered because the reduction of uncontrolled wildfires decreases the fire related GHG emissions. In addition, preserving healthy forests from fire as well as planting young rapidly growing trees represent important mitigation strategies to maintain carbon storage and enhance sequestration.
Forest fire prevention integrated into land management can help reducing the substantial economic consequences of projected increases in wildfire risk for the Mediterranean region. Indeed, costs of replanting and restoring damaged forests can be higher than the investment needed in fire prevention initiatives. In this regard, although prevention programmes suffer limited budget allocation compared to fire suppression, forest fire prevention is considered by FAO to be the ‘most cost-effective and efficient mitigation programme an agency or community can implement’.
Costs are related to the investment in new approaches and technologies, as well as in training of personnel involved in fire-fighting activities.
In Italy, after the severe summer in 2017, the resources of the National Fire Corps have been increased through a 10-year plan of investments aimed to improve the response of the State to wildfires. Moreover, several cross-organisational workgroups were created with the aim to improve cooperation between the different actors involved in forest fire-fighting activities. Italy participates in the PREVAIL project under the EU Civil Protection Mechanism to demonstrate that fire prevention can make large fire suppression more effective and less costly (JRC, 2018).
In Croatia, the Fire Protection Act and the Firefighting Act with accompanying bylaws, defines prevention measures regarding fire protection and operational functioning of the firefighting system. In addition, every year the National Government establishes additional fire protection activities according to the “Program of activities in the implementation of special fire protection measures of interest to the Republic of Croatia”. In 2018 an increased amount of funds for the implementation of the Activity Program was required leading to a better surveillance of the territory through high resolution stationary cameras, firefighting reconnaissance flights and observations by observers, drones or unmanned aircraft systems (JRC, 2018).
Within the Coastal Plan for Šibenik-Knin County, through an integrated approach, the importance of including preventive fire protection measures in spatial planning as well as in plans and documents dealing with landscape was recognized. In addition to a number of preventive measures, it is recommended to build retentions and incentives for livestock and organic agriculture in the hinterland and on islands, as well as ways to involve various sectors (especially tourism) in financing fire prevention activities (PAP/RAC, 2015).
Implementation time and lifetime
Implementation time of integrated management measures greatly depends on the risk perception and understanding of governments, cooperation among authorities of different involved sectors and on the level of education, awareness, participation and collaboration between the different stakeholders involved. Plan design can take relatively limited time (1-2 years), while its implementation in general relies on a continuous effort.
Fire management actions should become part of the local or national land use plans and therefore should generally have a long lifespan (and be valid for decades).
Source for more detailed information
EEA forest fire indicator assessment
European Commission, forest fire research and innovation
European Commission (2018). Forest fires. Sparking fire smart policies in the EU
IPCC (2019). IPCC special report on climate change and land
FAO (2006). Fire management: voluntary guidelines. Principles and strategic actions. Fire Management Working Paper 17. Rome
JRC (2018). Forest fire in Europe, Middle East and North Africa
Government of the Republic of Croatia (2019). Procjena rizika od katastrofa za Republiku Hrvatsku
Acknowledgements for the contribution in the preparation of the text to Milovan Kević from the Civil Protection Service of Šibenik and Nikola Tramontana from the Fire Brigade of the Primorje-Gorski kotar County.