These days, after the catastrophe on the Hawaiian island of Maui due to the impact of a forest fire against the city of Lahaina, many people wonder if something like this could happen here. And the answer is, unfortunately, yes. The possibility of having a forest fire that impacts a population and can cause dozens of fatalities is a plausible reality. But what are the differences and similarities between both scenarios?
A difference, evident a priori, is that of the type of construction. Here the majority use of brick prevails, while there there were vulnerable wooden structures and palm leaf roofs. However, in 2022, buildings burned in Catalonia, Castilla y León and Galicia. Less vulnerable does not mean impregnable.
The second is that here, at the moment, we don’t have hurricanes. The influence of the wind from Hurricane Dora has been decisive in the spread of the Maui fires. Despite this, in 2017 in Galicia the storm Ophelia showed the potential disaster that the interaction “forest fires – storms” entails. That episode between Galicia and Portugal ended with 50 fatalities in Portugal and 4 in Galicia. So far, Maui has had 115 confirmed fatalities, with more than 1,000 people still missing. Another 1,400 previously reported have been located in good condition. The fire on Maui has damaged or destroyed more than 2,200 buildings, which will cost $5.52 billion to rebuild. And, this with a fire of “only” 800 hectares (including the entire urban area).
“This is unprecedented,” Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said last week. And it is true. In a recent temporal context, not even the Mati fire in Greece (2018), which killed 102 people in just over 3 hours and destroyed more than 1,000 buildings, reached this level of severity.
But can we learn anything from all this? Is it possible to understand what has happened, and why, to try to prevent it from happening here? Unfortunately, sometimes until there are fatalities or massive impacts, it is difficult to carry out actions aimed at mitigating known risks.
Because the risk in Lahaina was known and studied. In fact, she had warned herself in writing on at least three occasions. First, in 2018, in a landscape-scale strategy design plan to reduce the risk of forest fires. The second, the following year, in a letter from C. Trauernicht, a specialist at the University of Hawaii. And, the last, in 2021, in a report on forest fire prevention in Maui after a previous episode of fire. And here we do find a similarity with our country: despite the warnings, action is rarely taken.
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In Spain there are many enclaves, both in both archipelagos and in the Peninsula, at risk of suffering a similar event. Populated areas are nowadays a problem when they are threatened by fire. For this reason, it is important to convert populated areas into safe places for the population and for people who work in emergencies. These people are exposed to fires that cannot be put out for long periods of time as they are “out of extinguishing capacity”. Because, even the extinction of forest fires has physical limits for the means and professionals who fight them. And these people cannot be sent as cannon fodder to fight battles that we know in advance that they cannot win.
Dozens of professionals have agreed that an annual investment of at least 1,000 million euros is necessary and to manage a minimum of 1% of the territory each year to have opportunities. The only thing we can choose about forest fires is in which landscape we are going to manage them. More or less loaded with fuel. More or less adapted to climate change. With adapted and prepared or unprepared nuclei. And for that it is necessary to regulate where it is built and, in the landscape, develop agro-livestock and forestry activities. Hoe, tooth, chainsaw and good fire.
The difference between “paradise or death” depends on how we allow a fire to behave in our environment. The choice “burn or not burn” must be faced from the property. If it is worked before, a property can leave unscathed. Otherwise, it may burn and endanger our family and neighbors. The responsibility is shared between public administrations and citizens, especially those who live in risk areas.
Everyone can have their own opinions, but they cannot have their own facts. And it is a fact that, if we do not manage our forests and our forest-urban interface areas in a rational and planned way, they will end up being managed by a forest fire that will not be controlled.
What do we prefer?
Juan Picos Martín, Doctor of Forestry Engineering and director of the Escoloa de Enxeñería Forestal de Pontevedra. University of Vigo. Federico Grillo Delgado, Forestry engineer, fire analyst and director of Emergencies of the Cabildo de Gran Canaria. Ferran Dalmau-Rovira, Forestry engineer, Emergency and Civil Protection technician and director of Medi XXI GSA.
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