Fires have become “more intense”, warns expert

Making some of them impossible to fight

Civil protection researcher Duarte Caldeira has been explaining today what lies behind 2022’s devastating summer wildfire panorama: forest fires are showing “new behaviour”, he says. “Very accelerated progression” and “a great intensity” that is sometimes “impossible to fight”.

His comments, coming in interview with Lusa, mirror those of US firefighting expert Park Williams who gave similar interviews in 2018 explaining how much climate change has intensified the problem of forest fires, and how in the US at least, they frequently outrun all forms of traditional combat.

Portugal’s dire situation has not yet reached the level of America – but according to Caldeira it is showing all the signs: “accelerated progression of fire fronts” on the one hand and increased “intensity and energy” created by the fire itself on the other.

A former member of the independent technical observatory created by parliament in 2021 and previously president of the Portuguese League of Firefighters (Liga dos Bombeiros Portugueses) and the National School of Firefighters (Escola Nacional dos Bombeiros), Caldeira referred to “multi-directional currents generated by the fire itself” in this year’s blazes, that “has led to the fire expanding in multiple directions and causing new ignitions (…) This is a new situation…” In fact, he believes it is one that “should be the object of study and specific analysis, since these phenomena will occur more frequently in the future”.

“We are in the presence of extreme events that will continue to happen, they will become regular and with which we have to live. So let’s look at our system, as it is configured, and understand whether or not it is adapted to these challenges”, he says – the interference being clear: Portugal’s ‘current system’ will need to adapt to the new reality…

Caldeira’s hopes are that “information should be collected and multidisciplinary analysis should be made with operators, politicians, academics and scientists” between now and October, when the risk of rural wildfires reduces (mostly due to temperature falls, even if rain has not fallen).

And he pointed out something that has barely been discussed up till now in the media: the number of incidents this year has actually been well down on previous years. It is simply that the fires themselves have become ‘monsters’.

Firefighting response also is vastly improved – underlining the fact that this new phenomenon needs real analysis.

It is pointless to ‘celebrate’ a reduction in burnt areas, Caldeira added, as if this was something “structural and to be maintained”. This is a “way of not looking at the problem with the rationality it requires, given the size and importance for the country. It is not a question of 10, 20 or 100 more hectares…” We have to realise that we had 20,000 hectares burnt last year, but “under radically different weather conditions” this year, so far, has already seen the incineration of 58,000 hectares.

What are the answers? Caldeira doesn’t point to answers. He prefers analysis first. If one looks at opinions of other experts, particularly ‘world renowned experts’ like Park Williams, the answers have to lie in ‘managerial tactics’: understanding that we are in “a new era of great fires” and that solutions like controlled burns – seen certainly in the past as ‘too risky or too heartless’ – may be what save communities, in the long run, from increasing tragedy.

As the US bioclimatologist explained four years ago: “Many forest managers know that a certain tract of woodland is due for a catastrophic wildfire in the next decade, but feel they have no political ability to do a controlled burn there—lest it get out of control. If the public understood that huge swaths of western forest will soon burn, they may be more willing to allow controlled burns when the meteorological conditions are right”.

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