April 23, 2024

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an experiment in participatory governance yields new management strategies

5 min read

The Montseny Biosphere Reserve (MBR) in Catalonia, Spain, is a fire-prone region. The area has become warmer over the last few decades (average of 1.2–1.4°C), increasing the risk of intense ‘megafires’1.

Climate change is expected to increase the number of days with weather conditions conducive to uncontrollable wildfires. During the last few decades within Europe, the Mediterranean area has noted an increase in the length of the fire weather season, resulting in large catastrophic wildfires that have caused human casualties and economic losses to large regions. An increase in fire weather days, and the resultant increase to the summer burnt area, is projected to rise rapidly in Europe in future decades. Large wildfires have also occurred in northern latitudes – previously unaffected by them – and European fire services are concerned about controlling future wildfires, especially at the interface of wildland with urban areas.

This study modelled a fire-propagation scenario to identify the best methods and locations for applying targeted fuel-reduction treatments – a method of fire prevention focused on minimising combustible material in key sectors of the landscape. The researchers developed a participatory multi-criteria evaluation tool to identify and map ‘landscape values’ – properties of the landscape that are important to people for personal or environmental reasons – and priority areas representing those in the MBR. The study was novel in that it incorporated landscape values from local people – in addition to those represented by experts in the MBR database.

The altitudinal gradient of the MBR, coupled with its three distinct biogeographical areas, endow the site with a great diversity of habitats and species within a small area. The researchers’ participatory approach involved joint work between scientists and other actors, including citizens, the fire department, technicians from the Catalan department of agriculture, regional museum staff, the association of forest owners and representatives from municipalities and tourist business associations. These stakeholders helped find solutions to the increasing threat from large wildfires by contributing vital data about landscape values, key fuel-reduction sectors and the order in which they could be implemented.

The researchers developed their wildfire-propagation scenario by defining the type of fire that would be most likely to cause the greatest damage to the MBR. They represented control areas using ‘containment polygons’ – territorial units that firefighters use to assess the spread of fires, in which the size of the polygon represents the area in which the fire is expected to burn down immediately and completely. The wildfire propagation scenario indicates the intensity with which the fire would pass from one polygon to another, and considers three propagation factors: the slope (sunny or shady), the fire movement (uphill or downhill) and direction (upwind or downwind).

The next step involved identifying landscape values. The researchers first obtained data from experts (i.e. the database of the public-use plan of the MBR), and used them to identify landscape values, which were sorted into four categories: biodiversity, socioeconomic activities2, built heritage and leisure. Local meetings were conducted in which these expert values were presented to citizens, alongside the wildfire strategy and fire-propagation model. The participants at local meetings were asked open questions about areas of value to save from wildfires, and the order of these valued areas. This generated landscape values not included by the experts, specifically incorporating several key sites of social importance not captured by the metrics recorded in the database. The information on landscape values was mapped onto a geographic information system (GIS) for the core and buffer areas of the MBR – around 64% of the total area.

The containment polygons were then prioritised according to the number and diversity of landscape values within them. This last step involved developing a wildfire-management strategy, based on a particular study of the areas that should be managed to help the fire services change the behaviour of a convective fire with west winds.

Management protection areas (MPAs) were identified to stop entrance and exits to multiplier polygons, i.e., polygons with a significant number of connections in maximum alignment of propagation factors to other polygons. In these MPAs, active forest management is required to reduce fuel load and the intensity of the fire and make it possible for firefighters to extinguish the blaze. With this in place, a strategy was developed to prevent fire accessing the prioritised polygons, where the order of implementation of the MPAs was related to their proximity to high landscape-value polygons.

From this process, the researchers identified areas which required fuel-reduction strategies, i.e. areas where forests are cleared using machinery and then managed through grazing (i.e. leaving the area ’bare’ – without trees or undergrowth – just grass) – creating a mosaic landscape with fuel-reduction areas to act as firebreaks.

The researchers note that integrating landscape values through a participatory multi-criteria approach, rather than a purely technical one, changes the wildfire-management approach. Thus, it can be seen as a spatially cost-effective adaptation to help local communities save valued areas when wildfires occur. However, there hasn’t yet been implementation of this strategy within the MBR. This requires further networking with the 18 municipality local authorities for uptake.

The researchers posit that there is another problem, in the paucity of farming and forestry-management activity in the area due to the rise of tourism and other related industries. Local people suggest, as do the researchers, that encouraging farming and forestry-management activities in the area, particularly the highlighted MPAs, as well as promoting the ‘rural way of life’, will encourage more people to undertake activities that naturally mitigate the spread of wildfires by reducing fuel in parts of the reserve. Of course, caution will have to be exercised to ensure that the execution of these strategies is in line with the overall management objectives of this important protected area.

The researchers conclude that implementing the wildfire-management strategy with the MPAs identified in the study, and promoting the primary sector (farming and forestry), will better protect the MBR, but that this will depend on larger changes in socioeconomic models and food systems through transformative, transdisciplinary governance projects. They add that these projects would aim to coordinate policies across different sectors – such as wildlife management, conservation and agriculture – to create workable and resilient landscapes.

Footnotes:

  1. A megafire is defined as ‘an extraordinary fire that burns a large area’.
  2. Socioeconomic activities are defined quite broadly, and include urban cores and households alongside industrial areas, camping sites and pastures.

Source:

Gamboa, G., Otero, I., Bueno, C., Arilla, E., Ballart, H., Camprubí, L., Canaleta, G., Tolosa, G., and Castellnou, M. (2023) Participatory multi-criteria evaluation of landscape values to inform wildfire management. Journal of Environmental Management 327: 116762. Available from:

To cite this article/service:

“Science for Environment Policy”: European Commission DG Environment News Alert Service, edited by the Science Communication Unit, The University of the West of England, Bristol.

Notes on content:

The contents and views included in Science for Environment Policy are based on independent, peer reviewed research and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Commission. Please note that this article is a summary of only one study. Other studies may come to other conclusions.

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