Creating less flammable landscapes would as much as halve the area expected to be affected by fire in the next 30 years

Using mathematical models, a joint Spanish and Portuguese study has shown that altering the landscape, so as to reduce vegetation density and combustibility for example, and promoting farming activities of high natural value would drastically reduce the amount of land damaged by fire.

Reserva Xures Geres. Foto: Sergei Gussev, CCBY
Xures Geres Reserve. Image: Sergei Gussev, CCBY

California is burning and Portugal is having its worst year for wildfires since the catastrophic events of 2017. It is only a matter of time before something similar happens in Spain. Paradoxically, despite growing investment in fire suppression, the number of major forest fires rises year after year. What is going wrong? As a recent study published in the journal Ecosystem Services, demonstrates, the real solution to the problem lies in nature itself: we need to create less flammable landscapes. According to the study, altering the landscape and promoting certain farming activities could as much as halve the total area expected to be affected by large forest fires over the period spanning 2030 and 2050. The study’s lead author, Adrián Regos from the University of Santiago de Compostela, states that vegetation characteristics must be factored in to fire hazard management, and that specific measures need to be taken to create landscapes that are less flammable, with slower-burning species and lower vegetation density levels; are more heterogeneous; and, in short, are more resistant to fire. As Silvana País from the University of Porto’s CIBIO-InBIO research centre explains, scientists call the approach in question “fire-smart management”.

“Vegetation characteristics must be factored in to fire hazard management. Specific measures need to be taken to create landscapes that are less flammable, with slower-burning species and lower vegetation density levels; are more heterogeneous; and, in short, are more resistant to fire.”

Adrián Regos, from University of Santiago de Compostel·la.

“Two key factors in sixth-generation fires are climate change, with the high temperatures and extremely dry conditions it entails, and young, homogeneous forests that have grown as a result of the abandonment of ancestral farming practices,” says Regos. “Firefighters, firebreaks and other forms of protection cannot control such super-fires because of their temperatures and the speed at which they spread,” he continues. “So, we need a paradigm shift, a preventive, integrated approach to land management, with policies that both promote the creation of fire-resistant landscapes and guarantee the sustainable use of resources and the conservation of biodiversity. This is what is known as a nature-based solution.” says Regos.

Núrias Aquilué i Lluis Brotons del la Unitat Mixta CTFC-CREAF
Lluis Brotons from the Mixt Unit CTFC-CREAF

“Les matemàtiques estan preparades perquè puguem comprovar des d’un ordinador com crear un territori menys atractiu per les flames, que no cremi de manera incontrolable. Aquestes eines científiques poden ser molt útils per millorar la presa de decisions a l’hora de gestionar de forma integrada el territori”.

Lluís Brotons, CREAF-based CSIC researcher  and leader of the Mixt Unit INFOREST CREAF – CTFC.

Using maths to stop fires

The paper revolves around an analysis of the Gerês-Xurés Transboundary Biosphere Reserve (in the north-west of the Iberian Peninsula) performed using REMAINS, a model that reproduces fire dynamics according to predesigned scenarios. By applying the model to different scenarios, the researchers found that the most effective way to reduce the amount of land affected by fire in the region would be to promote extensive farming and gradually replace conifer and eucalyptus forests with native oak forests.

Núrias Aquilué de la Unitat Mixta CTFC-CREAF
Núria Aquilué from the Mixt Unit CTFC-CREAF

“The model simulates wildfires (including fire ignition, spread, burning and extinction), vegetation dynamics (i.e. natural succession and post-fire regeneration), land-use changes (e.g. agriculture abandonment or intensification) and forest management (e.g. increase of intensive plantations for timber production).”

Núria Aquilué, researcher from the Mixt Unit INFOREST CREAF-CTFC.

Management with three benefits

The study’s results show that applying farming policies effectively would not only reduce fire hazards but also guarantee biodiversity conservation, stabilizing habitat availability for protected or endangered species over the next three decades.

Furthermore, creating less flammable landscapes would enhance carbon sequestration. In the case of the Gerês-Xurés Transboundary Biosphere Reserve, for instance, the researchers found that active land management would increase the amount of carbon sequestered between 2020 and 2050 by almost 3.5 teragrams.

Reserva Geres Xures. Foto: Wikipedia
Geres Xures Reserve. Image: Wikipedia

The study was carried out thanks to FIRESMART, a research project established to identify cost-effective, nature-based solutions that maximize benefits between fire prevention and ecosystem services. Funded by Portugal’s Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT), the project involves a number of Portuguese and Spanish research centres and institutes (CIBIO-InBIO, Prometheus, CREAF, the University of Santiago de Compostela, CITAB, CIMO and the CSIC).


Pais S, Aquilué N, Campos J, Sil A, Marcos B, Martínez-Freiría F, Domínguez J, Brotons Ll, Honrado J & Regos A (2020). Mountain farmland protection and fire-smart management jointly reduce fire hazard and enhance biodiversity and carbon sequestration. Ecosystem Services. 44: 101143.

CREAF-based CSIC researcher and leader of the InForest research unit run jointly by CREAF and the CTFC

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