By Joseph J. Bailey, University of Nottingham, UK.
Wildfires often occur as part of a natural cycle and they are important for the health of many ecosystems across the world by making the soil more suitable for seeding, for example. Indeed, many species (especially plants) have specific adaptations to wildfires such as fire-activated seeds and thermal insulation, while others rely on fires clearing space for their seedlings to grow (e.g. S. giganteum). The cause of wildfires may be natural or human-mediated (more information), and burning vegetation to make space for agricultural land, and as a means of managing natural fires, is common in many parts of the world (FAO).
Two key processes have the potential to increase the severity of wildfires in the future. First, global warming is likely to increase their intensity and duration as dry areas become drier and the length of the wildfire season increases. In fact, it has been reported that the area affected by wildfires has doubled in the western USA since the 1980s. Second, urbanisation has recently been linked to the potential for more damaging fires in Africa because of fewer traditional controlled burns in rural areas early in the wildfire season, leading to a build-up of dry vegetation (Archibald, 2016; Sci Dev Net, 2016).
We are, therefore, in a position where wildfires are likely to become an ever greater threat to human livelihoods and wellbeing. A recent article in The Geographical Journal (Caillault et al., 2015) discusses burning management in Burkina Faso, with a focus on ‘bad fires’, which are those that occur late in the season and degrade the Savannah. The authors highlight how policy has been slow to recognise the value of traditional fire management practices. These practices were once actively suppressed, but the advantages are now generally well-known. In spite of this, there are still some difficulties because of “the difference in perspective between rural land managers and policymakers” and “the lack of integration of the human dimensions of fire into fire science and ecology“, which are significant because policymakers are influenced by fire science, as detailed by Caillault et al. (p. 376). New ecological perspectives offer support for the importance of fire in Savannah landscapes towards the development of environmental policies and management rules in West Africa.
In line with this effort, Caillault et al. conduct a space-time analysis of fire in western Burkina Faso. They use remote sensing data from MODIS combined with field data, concluding that the spatial and temporal dimensions of burning are important aspects to understand regarding local and regional fire management. A regularity in the burning regime was recognised in relation to people, meaning that fire cannot be seen purely as a biophysical variable when considering its impacts on the Savannah: human practices shape this landscape as well. The fire practices observed were consistent, and not haphazard as is sometimes the perception, and they usually occurred early in the season, which has significant policy implications.
When we consider that wildfires are likely to worsen in coming years, a greater understanding of the spatio-temporal dynamics locally and regionally will be essential for fire management policy. This necessitates understanding human and physical processes, as part of a truly geographical approach, the likes of which is demonstrated by Caillault et al.
Archibald, S. (2016). Managing the human component of fire regimes: lessons from Africa. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B, 371 (1696), p.20150346. [Associated Sci Dev Net news article]
Caillault, S., Ballouche, A. and Delahaye, D. (2015). Where are the ‘bad fires’ in West African savannas? Rethinking burning management through a space–time analysis in Burkina Faso. The Geographical Journal, 181 (4), pp.375-387.
Mosbergen D 2016 Climate Change is Fueling America’s Wildfires, and it’ll only get worse The Huffington Post
UCSUSA 2016 Is Global Warming Fuelling Increased Wildfire Risks?