France's worst wildfires in 30 years force a rethink on managing forests

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REUTERS - PASCAL ROSSIGNOL
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The loss of more than 20,000 hectares of pine forest in the Gironde department of southwest France is a disaster for the region and its population, but it could be a wake-up call on the need to adapt Europe's largest artificial forest to the challenges of climate change.

The area of Gironde, south of Bordeaux, has been ravaged by forest fires. 20,000 hectares of bone-dry forest and heathland in La Teste-de-Buch and Landiras have gone up in smoke.

Like the majority of wildfires in Gironde, they were caused by humans.

The reasons why they spread so rapidly are also well-known: ongoing drought, temperatures of up to 42°C, strong erratic winds and dense vegetation which has complicated the job of firefighters.

Record numbers

France’s situation is a far cry from the 24 million hectares lost in Australia’s ‘Black Summer’ bushfire season of 2019-2020, but the extent of this summer's wildfire is worrying.

“Two fires of this magnitude and virulence at the same time in a department is a first in Gironde, and even in France,” said local prefect Fabienne Buccio.

There's thankfully been no loss of life, but the local economy and tourism industry has taken a hit.

Patrick Davet, the mayor of La Teste-de-Buch, said: “It’s heartbreaking. I know all these people. Economically, it’s going to be very difficult for them and very difficult for the town because we are a tourist town and we need the tourist season.”

He said they would “lift themselves up” but recognised it would take between 20 and 30 years for the forest of Pilat to become green once more.

Visiting the region on Wednesday, President Macron promised to launch a major tree-planting programme to replace the forest.

Global warming

Scientists and ecologists warn that more frequent periods of extreme heat caused by global warming will further increase the risk of wildfires.

“In France, we cannot rule out 50°C being reached,” said climatologist Prof Robert Vautard last month.

The government has earmarked 850 million euros to upgrade its fleet of fire-fighting planes, and on Wednesday Agriculture Minister Marc Fesneau called for even more investment.

But surveillance and fire-fighting alone, even reinforced, will not suffice.

“Sending planes to intervene in the minutes following the start of a wildfire, like in the south-east, will not be possible if the areas concerned are very large,” Dominique Morvan, an expert in wildfires at Aix-Marseille University, told HuffPost.

Meanwhile, modern life in France is an aggravating factor.

A report by France’s National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment (INRAE) found that a combination of urban sprawl and the increase in unmanaged forest will contribute to greater fire risk.

Maritime Pines

While fires can break out in any woodland, the 1 million-hectare Landes forest, which includes La Teste-de-Buch and Landiras, is particularly vulnerable.

87 percent is covered in maritime pines (pinus pinaster), a hard, fast-growing tree which has been used for decades by the paper, chemical and carpentry industry, and the energy sector for the development of biomass.

The pines were planted en masse back in the mid-19th century under Napoleon III, who owned tens of thousands of hectares of land in the area.

Gradually the shepherds were replaced by rubber-tappers who provided resin as raw material for the growing chemical industry.

It is now Europe’s largest man-made woodland.

“It wasn’t an error a few centuries ago when the idea was to plant massive numbers of pines to purify and drain the marshes in the Landes region,” says Jonathan Lenoir, a specialist in forest management at France’s CNRS research centre.

He acknowledges the monospecific tree plantations were “practical and easy to manage,” but “it’s no longer a good solution given global warming".

Rich in resin, the pines are also highly inflammable.

“Homogenous monocultures are the weak point of this kind of system because they’re not very resilient," he explains. "If there’s a problem in the environment – the propagation of disease or in this case fire – all the forest is affected.”

By planting different varieties of trees "there’s a chance the fire will spread more slowly because there’s always a species that’s less inflammable than another".

Tree-felling

The dense vegetation in La Teste-de-Buche forest has also allowed fires to spread more quickly and hampered access for emergency vehicles.

France's rural code requires landowners to keep a six-metre distance between plots of woodland and that residents living nearby clear the area around their homes of "fuel" which could feed fires once they start.

But the regulations are not always respected, and local officials blame owners for neglecting their plots.

They made the difficult decision this week to start chopping down healthy trees in La Teste-de-Buche to create spaces of up to 50m to act as firewalls.

“We hope it will work, but fire has several heads," Bruno Lafon, president of the DFCI association against forest fires, told RFI. "We had to take this decision, it’s heart-breaking."

Lessons not learned

This is not the first time the Landes forest has gone up in flames. In 1949 a monster fire burnt 50,000 hectares, killing 80 people. And in 1999, severe storms decimated large parts of the forest.

Both occasions could have provided an opportunity to diversify and restructure the forest, but maritime pines won the day.

“We haven’t really learned from our errors,” says Lenoir. “I’m not sure things are moving but hope that mentalities will evolve.

"An event on this scale has left its mark.”

Prevention and fire ecology

It’s time to take a more long-term view of forest management, he says.

“We need to diversify our forests, and landscapes, and not necessarily put forest everywhere.”

Attitudes towards fire also need to evolve, with a return to recognising that “fire is part of the ecosystem".

"We need to think more about reintegrating it into the system,” as it was in the past.

Not only can small fires help slow down bigger ones, some flora and fauna actually depend on wildfires to sustain specific species and habitats.

And while wildfires contribute to climate change by releasing carbon, stored in trees and vegetation, into the atmosphere, they can also play a more positive role.

“Small, regular fires can in fact fix carbon on the surface of the soil," Lenoir says, citing recent research.

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