Climate change is driving wildfires – can we tame the flames?

Firefighters battle the flames in the Dadia National Park in northeastern Greece in July, 2022. (Credit: Antonis Douros/WWF-Greece)

For the past two weeks firefighters have been battling to tame the blazes across Europe as a record breaking heatwave struck several parts of the region. Leaders have promised to ramp up fighting power and be better equipped next time. 

But as hotter and drier weather conditions driven by climate change threaten to ignite bigger and more intense wildfires, conservationists are now thinking how to adjust to the new normal and make habitats more resilient.

Changing winds

Wildfires are as old as forests themselves. Across the Mediterranean region, they’re a yearly event that destroys homes and forces people to evacuate. But to its ecosystems, it is part of the natural life-cycle that allows them to gradually burn through the accumulated biomass.

Some plant species have even evolved to actually thrive in those conditions, for example resisting the flames with their thick cortices or even using the fire to clear the ground for seeding.

But fires are changing. “What we are seeing in recent years is that wildfires are becoming more intense, more potent and more destructive in Greece and in the Mediterranean region,” Panagiota Maragou, head of conservation at WWF-Greece, told Geneva Solutions.

Fires have been sweeping across Greece for the past week and have been engulfing Greece’s oldest protected area, the Dadia National Park. Located in the north-eastern part of the country, the Dadia forest is mostly made up of pines and oaks, which can mostly bounce back quickly – that is if the fire doesn't cause too much damage.

Wendy Foden, chair of the SSC Climate Change Specialist Group at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) said: “Some plants and animals are designed to be able to hide either physically going underground or resprouting from the rootstocks or bulbs. But a super hot fire can actually kill that rootstock.”

The fire at the Dadia forest is far from burning with an intensity to the point that it can be called a mega fire, according to Maragou. But it is also home to fragile animal populations, like the Balkan’s only black vulture colony or the Egyptian vulture, a threatened species on the IUCN’s red list.

“Dadia is called the land of all the raptors and vultures because these big birds need mature and sturdy trees to build their nests,” said Maragou. Even if trees can regenerate in 10 to 20 years, they won’t be mature enough to hold their nests, according to Maragou. “The effect will be long lasting,” she regretted, noting that the fire had already affected one third of the park’s core area.

A black vulture and a griffon vulture in the Dadia forest. (Credit: Andrea Bonetti/WWF-Greece)

As climate change accelerates and weather conditions are turned upside down, other habitats which weren’t used to fires have started also experiencing fires. “If a fire gets into for example rainforests, they don’t come back because there's often a complete ecosystem switch,” said Foden.

In recent years, large parts of the Amazon rainforest have gone up in flames because of unchecked human activity and drought, turning one of the world’s major carbon sinks into a source of CO2 emissions.

How to adapt?

The Mediterranean landscape for years had resembled a mosaic, with open areas from small-scale farming and livestock raising offering some breathing room. But as people have moved closer to cities, nature has concentrated to form a thick, dense forest.

“In Greece and in the Mediterranean, we do not suffer so much from deforestation, but from the opposite,” said Maragou. “This is a problem because you need a variety of landscapes for biodiversity, otherwise you have something that's very homogenous.”

Dense forests also means more flammable vegetation, increasing the risk of ignition. WWF has secured funding for a project to create openings in the Dadia forest and is supporting efforts by the local management authorities to bring back declining populations of Roe deer, which eat the excess vegetation.

Fostering a mixed forest by favouring certain tree species that are less competitive after a wildfire is another way of ensuring a diverse, more resilient forest, according to Maragou.

The NGO is also participating in a pilot project of prescribed burning. The practice is commonly used in the US, Australia, Portugal and France and consists of setting fire to certain areas during the winter to reduce vegetation fuel that could cause an uncontrollable fire during fire season.

In the US, where fires have wiped out millions of acres, President Biden has promised to plant one billion trees to restore dead woodlands. But what works for Greece or the US does not necessarily work for other places where conditions are different.

“There's a big push back in Africa against nature-based solutions because they are not really solutions,” said Foden, citing the example of carbon credit schemes.

“People are planting a bunch of non-native trees like European pines or Australian acacias. They sequester carbon but are very bad for biodiversity and also highly flammable,” she added. These trees also soak up water in water scarce areas.

The South African government has been conducting a programme for the past 10 years called Working for Water, through which people are paid to cut down invasive species.

For Maragou, conservationists need to rethink how they manage their landscapes in their very own specific conditions. “We have to plan for climate resilient landscapes,” she said.