The revival of controlled fires is emerging as a preventive measure against catastrophic wildfires in Europe, particularly in regions prone to desertification. The COMPAS program in Spain, involving researchers and firefighters, studies the effects of controlled fires coupled with extensive grazing in areas with a dry climate. The European Data Journalism Network’s transnational journalistic investigation of wildfires explored the matter with an article by Davide Mancini.
Historically, fire has been used to clear vegetation and shape landscapes, but this practice declined with the rural exodus. The aim of projects like COMPAS is to reintroduce controlled fires and grazing, known as “pyric herbivorism,” to prevent large fires. The technique involves identifying areas at risk, planning controlled burns to remove brushwood, and later introducing grazing animals.
Ana Belen Robles, a partner in the COMPAS project, highlights that controlled fires and grazing increase floral and insect biodiversity, as they don’t reach high temperatures like larger wildfires. However, the challenge lies in the scarcity of shepherds, who traditionally used fire for land management. Stricter fire laws and increased organic fuel accumulation have led to a decline in this practice.
The project envisions education to create a new role, the ‘fuel manager,’ trained to reduce forest mass accumulation. With around 60 percent of Spain’s forests privately owned, convincing landowners of the benefits of controlled fires for prevention is crucial.
While various methods such as machinery and manual labour can clear tinder, grazing is cost-effective, averaging €60 per hectare, compared to €900-1000 for machinery. The European Environment Agency supports controlled fires as a climate-change mitigation strategy. The collaborative effort of firefighters, forest managers, shepherds, and experts is seen as a key solution to preventing future mega-fires in southern Europe and beyond.