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How to be ready for wildfires

How to be ready for wildfires

24 July 2023
An interview with Thomas Elmqvist, Professor of Stockholm University, Stockholm Resilience Centre and one of the world’s most cited scientists.

Professor Elmqvist is a part of the group of scientists from SAPEA that advised the European Commission on crisis management last year. Their report “Strategic crisis management in the EU” informed policy recommendations by the Group of Chief Scientific Advisors to the European Commission.

What does management of wildfires have in common with the general approach to crisis management?
Thomas: In the European Union and the member states as well, there's been a lot of focus on reactive
measures to crisis, that when it happens, develop strategies how to deal with the consequences. But
research points out that we need to become better at preparing, developing proactive measures to
reduce the risk.
In the science of crisis management, we’re talking often about polycrisis. While we might be able to
handle one crisis at a time, when we have several crises at a time it might be overwhelming. It makes
it even more important that we invest much more in reducing the risk of crisis, and proactive
measures. And that is also true for wildfires.
However, most public spending is going to take care of the consequences of a fire. Now we have
good satellite surveys that allow us to react quickly when there is a fire starting. But we need to
allocate much more public spending on proactive measures, reducing the risk by thinking through
how we could manage landscapes in a better way; prescribed burning where you burn small areas to
reduce the load of fuel; managing landscapes by grazing animals to reduce the amount of flammable
material in the landscape, as well as removing trees too close to people’s homes. There are many
measures that could already start. The European Commission could be part of developing a strategy
and encouraging member states to actually allocate much more public spending on these proactive
measures.

The SAPEA evidence review report mentions that planning and prevention gets only 1% of the of
the funding. Why is that?
Thomas: I guess it's easier for a politician to argue for allocation of funding when you have a full-blown crisis
and you need more fire trucks, you need helicopters. This is also important. But I think politicians
need to be wiser than that, thinking more long term. Start working now to reduce risk in the future
because we know it's only going to get worse.
We have had wildfires for millions of years. In some areas, it's part of the natural succession, and we
have to live with them. But now with climate change, we are getting fires in areas that have never
been burned before. And that's a novel thing and scarier. And that's where we need to put even
more effort into reducing the risk of fires starting.

How should we coordinate and prepare for this specific type of crisis on the European level?
Thomas: We have the climate strategy, the biodiversity strategy, farm to fork strategy, the forest strategy,
and now the new law on ecological restoration. I think we should bring all those strategies together
and look at what is the wildfire connection among all those strategies and help member states to
find those connections. Many issues could be solved by using all these strategies but linking them
together. The EU could basically have a coordination role.

As you said, we are living in a world of polycrisis. Crises are cascading, and they are connected
with each other. Are wildfires also connected with other crises?
Thomas: Of course. Large scale wildfires could have really serious health effects over huge areas, affecting
millions of people, particularly with respiratory problems. That could be an additional burden on the
health care system, which could then be put in a crisis. And if there is another pandemic coming at
the same time it could overwhelm the system.
Member States and the EU underestimate the health effects of wildfires. There are countries like
Australia and Singapore that experienced incredibly severe health effects of large-scale landscape
fires that have been occurring. And the long-term respiratory health effects that are really serious.

Is it possible to prevent wildfires?
Thomas: You can never prevent 100%, but you could do a lot to decrease the risk. You can use grazing animals
to keep landscapes more open. You could create these corridors through the forest. You can
design your restoration and planting with trees in a way that you know you're not increasing
vulnerability.
I'm now engaged with EASAC and we are working on a scientific report evaluating all these proactive
measures, collecting scientific evidence on what works and what we could actually recommend
European Union and the Member States. But I can say already now that both the EU and the
member states need to take a serious look on allocation of funding when it comes to wildfires. So
far, they’ve been investing mainly in reactive measures, but we need to increase the spending on
proactive measure

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