Latest insights from the Bulgarian Living Lab: bringing innovation, one step at a time

| Published:

Under the lead of the University Of Forestry (UF) in Sofia, the Bulgarian FIRE-RES Living Lab includes a large area situated in the Central Southern area of the country. We gathered an overview of the latest updates from Assoc. Prof. PhD Georgi Georgiev Kostov, Assoc. Prof. PhD Momchil Panayotov Panayotov, Vassil Vassilev and Elena Rafailova. 

Courtesy of Georgi Georgiev Kostov

Over the past two years, the FIRE-RES Living Lab in Central Southern Bulgaria has embarked on a transformative journey, striving to enhance wildfire resilience in the region. As with any ambitious project, unexpected challenges have arisen, offering both hurdles to overcome and opportunities for growth – and this is where our conversation with the LL leaders begins. 

The region appears to be lagging behind real integrated management in prevention, reaction, firefighting equipment and recovery planning. One notable revelation from the team’s interactions with their Community of Wildfire Innovation (CWI) was the fragmented approach to planning prevention and response across different departments and territories. This insight underscored the necessity for integrated, collaborative strategies to address recurring challenges effectively. 

On one side, stakeholders already proved their willingness to improve the framework. However, this requires political stability at all levels, from the central government to municipal offices and their staff. With three national elections and a local one occurring within a short span, the turnover in political leadership posed logistical challenges, impacting the staff and project continuity. On a positive note, the mayors of the two largest cities of the Living Lab were re-elected, which makes it easier to guarantee the necessary solidity for the project’s next steps. 

Another challenge is the availability of data. To feed the models and softwares at the core of some Innovation Actions, the team needs comprehensive datasets, which are usually not easy to access. This is where the outcomes of FIRE-RES become a crucial opportunity: in this sense, the project is allowing the LL to create a state-of-the-art for fire management. One example? The thriving collaboration with UniPD and ISA for the FIRE-RES Geo Catch app to collect images to feed fuel models. 

In Bulgaria, we have no dataset for fuel models, and this is the direction where our work is going. We successfully collaborated to feed as many pictures as possible, to improve and upscale this Pan EU model.

Courtesy of Georgi Georgiev Kostov

As central authorities are reportedly hesitating to modify the forest plans to include approaches to fires, FIRE-RES provides an opportunity to demonstrate new and better strategies for fire management, with invaluable benefits for the local communities. 

Building the CWI, and setting the stage for the next experimentations 

The first meetings with the Community of Wildfire Innovation (CWI) were successful, and the larger public is eager to see the project results. In later stages, the audience was gradually rearranged according to the complexity of the subject addressed, with a focus on experts, foresters and firefighters. Moreover, stakeholders’ conservative stance towards adopting new methodologies emphasized the importance of contextualizing innovations within existing frameworks to garner support and facilitate implementation. 

While the Living Lab continues to evolve, experimental endeavours such as the controlled grazing of goats in fire-prone areas will showcase innovative ways to manage vegetation and wildfire mitigation. Despite legal hurdles (this activity is currently illegal in Bulgaria), the team obtained the special permissions to carry out the test. This prioritizes on the agenda both the advocacy for integrated landscape management and the economic assessments of different fuel management approaches. 

Courtesy of Georgi Georgiev Kostov

During the 2024 fire season, from May on, the Living Lab will count on solid cooperation with a network of municipalities and other institutions. Each municipality involved will allocate targeted resources to the control and prevention of behaviours prone to wildfire risk, with the support of relevant government departments.  

During an event broadcast on the Bulgarian National Radio in the first week of June, the UF team successfully concluded a framework agreement with local municipalities, firefighters, foresters and faculty members to have specific common commitments on prevention. The next CWI meeting in Autumn 2024 will be a great opportunity to present the achievement. 

Looking ahead, the Living Lab envisions several novel initiatives to advance its objectives. These include refining modelling techniques to classify high-risk areas and experimenting with prescribed burning to manage vegetation effectively. Furthermore, ongoing efforts to collect data and disseminate project findings aim to catalyse broader awareness and support for wildfire resilience initiatives. The team expects consequent legislative changes to make integrated fire management a reality, starting with planning activities at the landscape level. 

Furthermore, the Living Lab team will present outcomes of the project at the upcoming Аnnual congress on Forest Pedagogy in Bulgaria, focused on the theme: “The European forests – subject to stress related to forest fires, drought, pests, storms and other nature disasters”.

As the FIRE-RES Living Lab navigates the complexities of wildfire management, it remains committed to fostering collaboration, innovation, and resilience in the face of evolving challenges. The journey of the FIRE-RES Living Lab in Bulgaria showcases the importance of adaptability, collaboration, and community engagement in achieving sustainable solutions. 

Author: Beatrice Bellavia (Euromontana). Contributors: Georgi Georgiev Kostov, Momchil Panayotov, Vassil Vassilev and Elena Rafailova (Sofia University of Forestry).