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Adaptation of fire management plans

In Europe, most fires occur in southern countries characterized by a Mediterranean climate. Southern France, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain are the most hit regions by fire. They account for about 75% of the number of fires and for 90% of the total burned area in Europe (San-Miguel-Ayanz et al., 2019). Even if the burnt area of these countries shows a slightly decreasing trend since 1980 (see EFFIS “European Forest Fire Information System” on total burnt areas), with the exception of Portugal, a large variability from one year to the next is observed, due to seasonal meteorological conditions: for example 2017 was the second year on record for increased burnt area, due to unprecedented forest fires in Portugal, while 2018 was the lowest on record. However, more European countries suffered from large forest fires in 2018 than ever before, not only in the Mediterranean area (e.g. Sweden experienced its worst fire seasons ever in 2018). Both 2017 and 2018 fire seasons were related to records in droughts and heatwaves occurred during spring and summer in the most affected regions. Even if burnt area decreased since 1980, fire danger showed an increase over the same period, especially in southern and eastern Europe (see the indicator on forest fire danger developed by the JRC PESETA III project), suggesting that fire management (both in prevention and suppression) plays a crucial role in containing fire impacts.

Climate change is expected to further aggravate fire risk, especially in the Mediterranean region, where scenarios project an increase in the number of years with high fire danger, an increase in the length of fire season and larger, more intense, and more frequent fires. Climate projections, both at low and high emission scenarios, show marked increases in fire danger in most European regions, especially in western central Europe, by expanding the area with moderate fire danger towards north. Portugal, Spain and Turkey still remain the countries with the highest absolute danger (see the JRC PESETA III indicator on forest fire danger).

The interactions of climate change with vegetation cover and fire regimes should be fully understood and properly considered in fire management, to enable adapting related plans and policies taking into account changes in fuel and vegetation type, changes in burning conditions and additional fire risk.

Fire management plans provide actions for a specific area, aimed at: (i) preventing fires, (ii) protecting people, property and forests from fire events, (iii) and using fire to accomplish forest management and other land-use objectives. Any effective fire management programme must take in consideration the ecology and fire history of the considered area, as well as the knowledge of fire regimes, probable fire effects, values at risk, level of forest protection required, cost of fire-related activities, and prescribed fire technology.

Fire management can be pursued through different techniques, ensuring the safeguarding of life, property and resources through the prevention, detection, control, restriction and suppression of fire in forest and other vegetation in rural areas. Fire management activities include:

  • Early warning and detection systems;
  • Mobilization and suppression of unwanted and damaging fires;
  • Use of fire to reduce the accumulation of natural fuel and residues from commercial or non-commercial activities;
  • Appropriate use of natural or human caused fire in maintaining ecological values and integrity of certain ecosystems;
  • Rehabilitation of ecosystems damaged by or dependent on fire.

Forest fire is a process with unpredictable behaviour, and fire detection, monitoring and forecasting are crucial phases in prevention measures, to be taken into account in any fire management plan. Early warning systems (EWS) can play a crucial role in supporting the detection of potential fires, as earliest as possible. Some experiences are already in place, as the Global Fire EWS developed by the Global Fire Monitoring Centre (GFMC) or the prototype of the Fire Weather Alert System (FWSA) in the US. Technology for fire monitoring and detection is 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 using smoke detectors, drones, etc. The use of drones is especially acquiring growing interest in different fields, due to the high-resolution data they can acquire in short time and at a relatively low price. Drones 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.

Other fire management actions are related to the reduction and rearrangement of combustible materials (e.g. biomass from litter, death trees or branches). Some sectors also use prescribed fire, the deliberate use of fire to meet management objectives, as in the case of agriculture, forestry, and pastoral and wildlife management. Prescribed fires are a very effective way to remove unwanted vegetation for a variety of objectives, including fire prevention because they help in reducing combustible materials more prone to burn in case of favourable conditions (e.g. drought or heat waves). The presence of a high level of combustible materials can also be favourable to extend fire in large areas, since it accelerates fire propagation velocity. So, reducing combustible materials (by using prescribed fires) can be a useful fire management strategy. A critical issue of any planned burning programme is, however, the mitigation of the effects of smoke. An effective smoke management programme is then necessary when prescribed fires are applied, such as applying fire during right weather conditions (e.g. low level for particulate matter in the air, wind not in the direction of urban centres, right conditions for wind speed and atmospheric stability).

Rehabilitation and restoration actions are part of a long term process focused on repairing infrastructure and natural resource damages caused by fire events and can take many years. Actions include: planting trees, re-establishing native species, repairing damage to facilities such fences, restoring habitats and treating invasive plants. Other sustainable forest management practices aiming to reduce fire risk and fire impacts are: (i) the establishment and maintenance of fire breaks, forest tracks and water supply points, (ii) the appropriate choice of tree species, and (iii) fixed forest fire monitoring facilities and communication equipment to prevent catastrophic fire spread.

Additional Details
Reference information

Adaptation Details

IPCC categories

Institutional: Government policies and programmes, Social: Informational

Stakeholder participation

Successful fire management actions requires participatory approaches involving key stakeholders, as public institutions, public and private landholders, fire services, local communities and interested business sectors. A multi-stakeholder approach is needed to ensure coordination for fire management in areas where multiple organizations and actors have responsibilities and interests. The European Commission implemented this multi-stakeholders approach for forest management purposes, such as for EFFIS and with the Standing Forestry Committee, which provides advice to the EU Commission on forest related matters.

In addition, public campaigns are really useful for raising awareness on fire risk in citizens and local communities. The campaigns can help in improving local communities and land owners in understanding messages from EWS and adopting safe behaviour during fire event. Finally, key stakeholders can help in fire monitoring and fire prevention activities (e.g. volunteers, landholders, local communities and interested business sectors), while fire suppression should be managed by fire services or trained volunteers.

Success and Limiting Factors

The effective implementation of fire management plans depends on the involved governments, international and non-governmental organizations, financial institutions, landowners, land users and other stakeholders, which should fully recognize the specific requirements needed to deal with fire management. Emphasis may be needed in technology transfer, education, training and scientific cooperation, and in enhancing abilities to strengthen fire management organizations and capabilities.

Safety of the fire fighters must have the highest priority in the policies, procedures, plans and management philosophy of any agency or organization. So, proper safety equipment and training to each individual in fire suppression and prescribed burning operations are essential to success.

The inappropriate use of prescribed fire at the wrong frequency or intensity can lead to a loss of plant species, a change or reduction in vegetation structure and, in some cases, a corresponding loss of animal species. In addition, a key issue for successful fire management under climate change is the adaptive capacity of the area, which depends not only on the available scientific and technical knowledge, but also on the social, economic, and political components associated with the implementation of the different adaptation options.

Costs and Benefits

The development of fire management plan requires high investment costs since it is a long-term measure. However, benefits for countries and communities that intend to develop management plan are significant, being related to improved monitoring capacities, prevention of fire risks, improved response in case of fire events and rehabilitation of damaged ecosystems and infrastructures. In addition, fire management plans allow and promote the sustainable forest management practices with potential benefits on sustainable silviculture, agriculture, livestock and watershed management. The use of prescribed fire is recognized as a good practice for restoring or maintaining habitats and natural resources, for reducing threats and for maintaining cultural values and biodiversity.

Use of drones for fire prevention can provide significant benefits, including: availability of high accuracy data, reduced costs, flexible operation in time and space, and the advantage of no human risks in the detection phase. However, the current use of drones in forestry applications is still at an experimental stage, but showing great potential in the near future.

All fire management activities should be based on a legal framework and supported by clear policy and procedures, in particular to avoid a wrong use of planned or prescribed fires and consequent impacts. At EU level, the EU Forest Strategy for 2014-2020, developed in 2013 and reviewed in 2018, represents the framework for both European and national forest-related policies. In addition, the Forest Multi-Annual implementation Plan (Forest MAP), published in 2015, includes a concrete list of actions for a forest sustainable management for the period 2015-2020, as well as the actors to be involved, the timing and the expected outcomes.

At national level, almost all European Countries have a National Forest Strategy or Plan, updated every 10-15 years, which can be mandatory or not depending on the dimension (in ha) of the public forest. For example, Italy has a national Strategy for Forest Management (with the strategy actually under a public revision process), and a mandatory Forest Management Plan (FMP). In Spain a Forest Strategy was developed since 1999 and a Spanish Forest Act was approved in 2006, which refers to all public and private forests (National Law in 2019). In addition, some regions adopted specific laws requiring to have FMP for all public and private forests bigger than 25 ha (e.g. in Galicia, Spain).

Specific fire management activities to address fire risk varies depending by Country and regions. In some cases, both activities for fire prevention (reduction of burning material with silvi-cultural activities or prescribed fires, training of personnel, ecc.), and fire suppression (e.g. monitoring and warning actions) are included in such management plans.

Implementation Time

The implementation time of fire management plans greatly depends on the will of responsible institutions, the existing capacities and skills, and the degree of participation and collaboration between the different stakeholders involved. Plan design can take limited time (1-2 years), while its implementation in general relies on a continuous effort.

Life Time

Fire management actions should become part of the local or national spatial plans and therefore should generally have a long life-time (decades).

Reference information


FAO, 2006. Fire management: voluntary guidelines. Principles and strategic actions. Fire Management Working Paper 17. Rome.

Banu T. P., Borlea G. F., and Banu C. 2016. The Use of Drones in Forestry. Journal of Environmental Science and Engineering B 5 (2016) 557-562

Published in Climate-ADAPT Aug 31 2016   -   Last Modified in Climate-ADAPT Aug 17 2023

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