Portugal’s catastrophic forest fires and the role of forest industry

Forest fires aren’t a problem solely for Asia and South America; they’re happening in Europe too. TFT’s Björn Roberts looks at the underlying causes in Portugal

Worldwide, forest fires are becoming increasingly destructive in terms of human lives, carbon emissions, and lost habitat, timber, infrastructure and property. 2017 was Portugal’s worst forest fire year on record.  104 people died, approximately 520,000 forest hectares were destroyed (perhaps many more), and huge volumes of CO2 were released into the atmosphere [1].

This was not a one off event.  In 2016, Portugal lost four percent of its forest to fire, the highest rate of any country other than Brazil, and this followed particularly bad fire years in 2013, 2010, 2005 and 2003. The European Forestry Institute reports that between 1980 and 2013, the Iberian Peninsula alone accounted for 60 percent of all of Europe’s forest fire loss [2].

Of Portugal’s total forest cover, only one percent is primary woodland. 98 percent is privately owned – 90 percent by private individuals – and is predominantly cultivated for commercial production: Eucalyptus destined for pulp and paper; Pine and other native softwoods and hardwoods for solid and engineered products including wood pellet biomass production. So, regulation notwithstanding, the health of Portugal’s forests is bound inextricably with the scale and nature of forest industry.

In the regions I visited, parts of the forest economy now face crisis. A number of wood-processing mills were destroyed by the fires, and others face an uncertain future as vast tracts of timber on which they depended were burned through. Dead and blackened stands, with little economic value, must now be cleared before a new generation can be established. That will be an expensive and lengthy task, but if this does not happen, future wood supplies will be at risk, along with the carbon sequestration and other the ecological and environmental services that a growing forest provides.

In December I saw logging trucks backed up waiting to deliver salvageable logs to saw mill log yards, already overflowing. But this was a misleading, transient picture – the immediate glut of timber will be followed by severe shortages. The enormous task of clearing dead trees will take much time. Once blue stain fungi sets in, Pine will lose its commercial value for most uses. Local supply to industry will diminish, and forest land owners will have less economic motivation to clear dead trees and re-establish the forest.

It’s therefore critical that the remaining forest industry should now stay engaged in these fire-affected regions and use what wood it can, and then, longer term, seek more innovative and collaborative ways to support better management of the forest landscapes on which it depends.

Wood pellet production, with its flexibility in its wood sourcing options, is one of the few forest industries that should be able to continue operating and using fire damaged wood in the longer-term. Questions will rightly be asked about whether wood should be extracted to make pellets for low-carbon power generation from landscapes where carbon stocks have been heavily depleted. But in Portugal, that depletion is not the result of over-harvesting or of forest conversion, quite the opposite. Here it is under-utilisation and under-management of the forest resource that leads to its destruction by catastrophic fire. Pellet production is adding marginal but much needed value to forest land, and helping to maintain a forest economy in crisis, thus contributing to the forests’ future health and carbon storage capacity.

While wood pellet mills have a special role to play by staying engaged in fire-affected regions, Portugal’s biomass industry is a relatively segment of the national forest industry. It is not about to transform the forest economy or forest management practices. Collaborative action is needed to get to the heart of the forest fire problem.

So, what actually lies at the heart of the problem?

Wildfire has always been an integral part of Portugal’s forestry. The country’s Mediterranean climate, Atlantic winds and steep slopes make that inevitable. But this tells us nothing about why fires are becoming more numerous, with more catastrophic fire years when forest fires defy concerted suppression actions and burn for days causing large-scale devastation.

Climate change is very likely to be part of the explanation, with longer, hotter and drier summers and more severe heatwaves and winds. 2016 was the world’s hottest year on record, followed by the hottest non-El Nino year in 2017. Another relevant trend is the expansion of tree cover in Portugal and much of southern Europe over recent decades as agricultural plots are abandoned. There’s more dense young forest to burn and fewer breaks in forest cover to arrest fire spread.  But these background factors, as relevant as they are, don’t fully explain why Portugal, and specifically Portugal’s central and northern regions in contrast to the south, are so prone to catastrophic fire.

In talking with a range of Portuguese forest stakeholders, it became clear that both the causes of catastrophic fire and the technical fire-management solutions are well understood. Those who I met consistently attributed the location, frequency and destructiveness of forest fires to the particular socio-economic conditions of northern and central Portugal.

Here, land holdings are small and fragmented, less than two hectares on average in some provinces (average holdings are significantly larger in the south). Rural areas have depopulated over recent decades as people seek better livelihoods in the cities. As a result, individual forest holdings tend to be young, densely stocked and little managed. Controlled burns to clear forest fuel are rare, but negligent and malicious ignitions are reportedly common.

At the landscape level, evidence of fire management or land use planning is minimal, at least outside the larger commercial Eucalyptus plantations.  Large tracts of Pine and Eucalyptus stretch unbroken by fire breaks, agricultural fields or stands of less combustible tree species. Some grow up to the road edge and close to residential properties, contributing to the large number of fatalities in 2017.

In these depopulated regions, with inadequate fire monitoring and suppression services, fires get underway unspotted, and spread rapidly and unhindered, and a small number become hugely destructive ‘mega-fires’.

At both individual plot and landscape level, the core of the problem appears to be the same: economic returns from forestry and agriculture appears to be too low to incentivise individual owners, or the authorities, to invest in planning and management to increase productivity and mitigate the fire risk. In fact, one reason why individual small holders are reluctant to invest in management interventions, and why they plant fast growing Eucalyptus (known as the ‘fire tree’), is the likelihood that any investment they make in long-term productivity will be wiped out…by fire.

Forest owners are unable to get the returns on timber that would incentivise them to invest in better forest management, and effective landscape-level planning is hampered by small-scale, fragmented and absentee land ownership.

So, the problem is well understood, but also seems to be growing.  After Portugal’s 2003 fires, then the worst on record, International Forest Fire News identified the following structural causes:

  • chaotic structure of small private property that encourages abandonment of smallholdings
  • absence of a sustainable long-term national forest policy
  • lack of strategy for the rural economy comprising the forestry sector
  • the deterioration of the Forest Services
  • poor organisation of the fire-fighting services and lack of training
  • poor education and poor public awareness campaigns on the increased risks of forest fires

More than a decade later, an EFI Information Note of December 2015, ‘The bioeconomy as an opportunity to solve the structural problem of forest fires in southern Europe’ observed:

There is increasing knowledge available on fire behaviour and its links with landscape structure, forest condition and weather. It is now possible to design smart landscapes that are far less prone to catastrophic fires. The difficulty lies not so much in identifying what to do, but rather in understanding how to make it happen.’

Some attempts have been made, including formation of ‘Forest Intervention Areas’[3] from 2005 onwards, but with limited success – in 2016 and 2017 Portugal accounted for more than half of total European forest fire loss.

How to make it happen remains the key question. How can potential economic values be achieved, and how to rationalise forest management costs across landscapes of small fragmented forest holdings? The answers must lie with all those who have a direct stake in the local forest economy – landowners, government, industry and civil society.

But, if the heart of the problem is a lack of incentive to manage forest land actively, that same lack of incentive could explain why more collaboration across sectors, and more innovation to agree and see through meaningful change, has not happened. Forest industry has a clear incentive to work for a better managed forest landscape – it cannot achieve this alone, but the space and the need exist for industry to lead in initiating and driving solutions-orientated discussions with the other stakeholders.

[1] FAO 2010 figures reported at Mongabay (https://rainforests.mongabay.com/deforestation/2000/Portugal.htm) state that Portugal had 3.4 million ha. of forest with 102 million metric tonnes of carbon in living forest biomass (374 million tonnes CO2 equivalent)

[2] EFI reference

[3] ‘Forest Intervention Areas’ (ZIFs). Central government start up funding for contiguous areas of at least 750 ha, include at least 50 landowners and 100 forest plots, and be managed by a single body to improve forest management, prevent fire, increase productivity and contribute to rural development. Today, 189 ZIFs, including 92 in the Centro region, cover approximately one million hectares of forest – close to one third of Portugal’s forest estate.