Last summer’s news of wildfires in southern Europe had caught no one’s attention. With the increase in severe weather around the world, we are hearing more and more about wildfires. However, it is not known that a significant number of forest fires occur in the Netherlands each year. Wildfire experts warn of uncontrollable fires, and climate change is making the problem worse.
Therefore, robust forest fire management is of great importance. This needs to go beyond mere repression. Keeping wildfires burning, as part of integrated forest fire management, can be a good thing within certain regulations. That’s why we can look at US wildfire management, but there are lessons to be learned in our country as well.
To manage our wildfires, we can learn from the mistakes of others; In this case from the United States. In the twentieth century, there was a policy according to which all wildfires must be suppressed in the first place. Later, fires caused by lightning were allowed within certain regulations, but because the fire was kept away from nature for a long time, and combustible biomass accumulated, a so-called ‘lack of fire’ arose, which eventually led to devastating fires. Thus, the policy has exceeded its goal.
There is some debate as to whether this lack of fire resulted from the suppression of fires caused by lightning or the suppression of local fire use historically. American politics was based on a romantic idea of nature, in which man has no place. The American “wild” would only know fire caused by lightning, and the important role that indigenous peoples played in shaping the landscape through fire has been ignored.
Today, however, the place of humans in wildfire systems is widely known, and fuels are often actively managed to avoid fire shortages. This is done, for example, by controlled burning, but also allowing unplanned fires to burn within some regulations remains an important part of wildfire management that does not rely on the illusion that the fire can remain outside of nature.
However, in the populous Netherlands, the situation is different from that in the United States; Opponents will say that there is no place in the Netherlands for unplanned fires. But even if we look at what is really happening in our country, in this case in the field of water management, it seems that it is possible to give space to the fire. After all, in the program “River Room” this was also done for the “natural process” of the flood. Some parts of the river landscape are designed in such a way that it can be inundated when necessary, and flood protection is combined with other functions such as nature development, recreation and mud extraction.
Nature sometimes needs to be given space to follow its own dynamics
In the national view of nature, this is referred to as “resilient nature”: a nature that is not only supported by society, but “on the contrary, society also gives it scope to follow its own dynamics.” With this idea, politics follows the relatively recent shift in ideas within science, where ecologists have exchanged a static understanding of nature (“nature in equilibrium”) for a more dynamic characterization (“nature in motion”). For a long time, “natural disturbances” such as wildfire were seen as bad, but now they have been included in the ecological understanding of nature, and “belong to it”. This means that there is a greater willingness to consider the environmental impacts of wildfires, and not to classify them as bad by definition.
What the US Fire Department and the Dutch Water Department have shown is that the idea of letting wildfires burn isn’t crazy at all. Where fire was kept out of nature in our thinking and doing, it is now an increasingly part of what we consider nature, and in the case of the United States – again playing an important role in ecosystems.
But what the two examples also show is that this thinking is rooted in deeper ideas about what nature is, and that other explanations exist as well. Different views of nature often form the basis of social conflicts surrounding the management of nature, as in the conflict surrounding Oostvaardersplassen. However, discussions about what “true nature” is (as has been made around Oostvaarderplassen) often end with a strategy game of framing and other conversational techniques, and are therefore of little importance.
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So what we need to move forward is a conversation about bushfire management based on practical considerations. Because what the two examples also showed is that there are clear benefits to letting fires burn. Possible defects, such as damage to air quality and/or negative environmental impacts, must of course be taken into account when making management decisions. But what we need to get rid of is the idea that wildfires are inherently bad.
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