Wildfires – fighting fire with fire?

Keeper Heather Burning 2 www.davidmasonimages.com

Back in November last year I listened to a very interesting piece broadcast on this subject as part of the BBC World Service’s Crowd Science programme. It referred to Aboriginal cultural practices of using ‘cool burning’ as a means of preventing wildfires i.e. using fire to fight fire. This might seem counter-intuitive, but it works.

These cultural fires are ‘cool’ burns that are intentionally set in favourable conditions, using intricate local knowledge of ignition points, wind patterns, individual site characteristics and other factors that dictate its course and severity. They were used to achieve a variety of socio-ecological benefits, such as clearing vegetation that would otherwise fuel severe wildfires, and letting in light to encourage healthy and diverse habitats that are more fire-resistant. In addition, as the vegetation burns, potassium and potash is released back into the earth encouraging plant regeneration and for some of the fire-adapted species, the ‘cool, soft’ burn breaks down the hard seed covering to allow propagation.

Climate change is increasing the probability of ‘fire weather’ and therefore the frequency, size and severity of the fire event. Consequently, even fire-adapted species are affected as they have not reached productive maturity before the next fire. Ironically, the carbon emitted by wildfires is reinforcing the conditions that are leading to our climate changing. Indigenous tribes such as the Aborigines and Karuk peoples of North America are frustrated that their centuries-old knowledge of how to re-engineer the landscape to prevent destructive wildfires is ignored in favour of fire exclusion and suppression. At what cost?

As the Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology (POST) PostNote in June 2019 stated, “There is a lack of evidence and holistic economic analysis of wildfire damage in terms of preparation, prevention, response, and recovery.” Estimates exist of the cost of fire suppression (using teams of people, bulldozers, fire engines, helicopters and aeroplanes); for example, the annual cost of fighting wildfires in the UK is considered to be c£55 million, and the estimated cost to the US insurance industry of the American wildfires of $7-13 billion in 2020 (Reuters) could be regarded as a proxy for the cost of loss of property and business. And then there is the cost to human health of air pollution – “Smouldering peat fires have greater impacts on air quality than vegetation fires. They emit toxic compounds and high levels of small particulates, which may pose health risks” (POST) – as well as the impacts on our climate from the emissions.

The Saddleworth Moor wildfire, which resulted in seven centimetres of peat being lost, is estimated to have released 17,798t CO2 – 26,281t CO2 (worth £1,139,082 and £1,681,984 respectively) from soil carbon losses only i.e. no calculation was made of the carbon released from the surface biomass (vegetation). We have estimated that adding in the surface biomass could equate to another 19,800t CO2, resulting in total emissions of 37,598t - 46,081t CO2. Add to this the cost of ongoing ‘legacy’ emissions from a degraded site where the exposed peat can be lost by wind-blow, surface water flow and frost heave, resulting in further losses of 0.8-1.0cm per year.

Whilst these are measurable costs to a degree because, for example, we have apportioned value to carbon losses, there are the as yet unknown environmental costs related to the impact on our habitats, wildlife and biodiversity. Not only are there the tragic wildlife losses at the time, but the loss of vital habitat will have longer-term impacts, possibly fragmenting populations and changing their ecosystems such that they do not have supporting food or nesting habitat or protection from predators. We also need to consider the effect of fires on our pollinators and how this might impact on the recovering habitat.

So what does this all mean? It means that we need to consider ways of mitigating the threat of wildfire rather than just relying on its suppression – and we would argue this means reversing a ‘fire-exclusion’ based approach to one that embraces fire as a conservation tool.

The Guardian ran an article in September 2020 by Bill Tripp, director of natural resources and environmental policy for the Karuk Tribe Department of Natural Resources, which linked frustrations with indigenous peoples’ attempts to retain their cultural heritage and customs with the mega-fires raging in California at the time. Bill said: “Fire … renews life. … It changes the molecular structure of traditional food and fiber resources making them nutrient dense and more pliable. Fire does so much more than western science currently understands.” Science does not always have the answers. Sometimes looking to our past can help us understand how to approach current and future problems.

As you read the description of the cultural burns undertaken by indigenous tribes, did you not think that the phraseology is similar to that we use to promote the burning practices undertaken on our threatened grouse moors? Grouse keepers use ‘cool’ burns to promote a diverse and healthy habitat that supports not only red grouse but also a variety of other wildlife. This management approach has other socio-economic benefits such as the potential to aid wildfire suppression – at no cost to the taxpayer. As Professor Nick Sotherton so eloquently put in in the GWCT Peatland Report: “Predicting a future without fire in UK’s moorlands is complicated, but lessons learned in the USA and in other fire-prone regions of the globe suggest that finding ways to manage fire for biodiversity, wildfire hazard reduction, and carbon storage is an important strategy for long-term sustainability.”

It is vital, therefore, that the control of wildfire as part of Defra’s licensing approach to controlling burning on deep peat (see their statement here) is actively pursued and the relevance of the lessons learnt from other fire-prone ecosystems around the globe to our situation understood. Let us hope the politicians and policymakers are listening and are keen on exploring cultural history.

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