Fire long has been an important subject of debate, stemming from the apparent contradiction between its controlled use in everyday life and its threats to life and property as uncontrolled wildfires. This paradox has been phrased very well as, "Fire is a bad master but a good servant." This dichotomy is a key issue for the European project known as Fire Paradox.
These two visions of fire have grown increasingly far apart, partly due to the increased distance between traditional rural societies, which commonly used fire as a "good servant," and modern urban societies that know fire mostly from the news, where the dominant image of fire as a "bad master" is reported from catastrophic events. These contradictory views are reflected in all aspects of society, shaping the laws, regulations and social acceptability of various practices, such as smoke management.
For example, rural societies tend to accept prescribed burning as a management tool. They regard smoke as a normal consequence of fire use, and they understand the major differences in predictability and quantity produced by prescribed fires versus uncontrolled wildfires. On the contrary, urban societies tend to not consider the differences between prescribed fires and wildfires, promoting restrictions on fire use that paradoxically will result in larger wildfires and more smoke.
Possibly because of this understanding, rural societies where prescribed fire has been used often do not impose any type of restrictions on prescribed fire. Similarly, because of limited use of prescribed fire or of public acceptance of its effects, smoke restrictions are not common in many parts of Europe.
However, because regulations regarding fire vary in different countries, Fire Paradox is assembling and analyzing the various laws and regulations. Because of the importance of historic issues, Fire Paradox partners also have been collecting many examples of the traditional use of fire, from grazing and hunting to the disposal of agricultural residues.
The documented use of prescribed burning as a forest management tool for reducing wildfire hazard goes back to the pioneering work of the German Frederick Varnhagen in the pine forests of Leiria, Portugal, in the beginning of the 19th century. Similar trends occurred in France and other European countries.
The use of prescribed fire continued in cycles, being rediscovered in the last few decades with an important contribution by Portuguese forester José Moreira da Silva. The professional and social acceptance of this technique also was a matter of time, helped along by the pioneering contribution of U.S. scientists Edwin and Betty Komarek. Fire in the Balance, a documentary produced by Fire Paradox, depicts the importance of such contributions.
Thirty years after the reintroduction of fire in pine forests in Portugal and France, prescribed fire now is widely recognized, and its operational use generally includes informing the public, which strongly contributes to its acceptance. Lessons learned regarding the use of fire — including interviews, images, and reports on both failures and successes — are being compiled within the project as important resource materials for future academic and professional training.
Although the project partners are primarily from European countries, there also are participants from Morocco, Tunisia, South Africa, Mongolia, Russia and Argentina. This expansion has made it possible to incorporate a wider range of situations and visions on how the paradox of fire should be handled. In fact, many teams in the Fire Paradox consortium have experience with prescribed fire. The diversity of expertise was very much encouraged in the creation of the project, making it possible to cover the various facets of research, development and dissemination required by the different aspects of fire: prescribed fire, initiation, propagation and suppression.
This diversity of situations and approaches within Fire Paradox can be captured and handled within the concept of integrated fire management. This concept accounts for the historical and social aspects of fire, builds on the knowledge of fire in the various scientific disciplines, and makes good use of technological developments. Integrated fire management should encompass all the issues of fire, from its use in prevention (prescribed fire) and firefighting (suppression fire), to the understanding of the processes of its start (fire ignition) and spread (fire propagation).
Integrated fire management can help solve the apparent contradiction between fire as a "bad master" and "good servant." A wise use of fire for management will benefit the handling of fire suppression, which is another research area within Fire Paradox. The project investigates the historic use of fire in firefighting, including the trends, problems, challenges and success stories. The project also is deeply involved in researching the understanding of the physics behind suppression fire, using models developed within the project as well as those of the project's international advisory committee, extending the reach to the United States, Canada and Australia.
Because of its importance in both suppression fires and in prescribed fires, the interaction between fire fronts has been specially considered in Fire Paradox. This is a very rich area of research — largely unknown — with very important potential applications. Questions such as the best distance between fire lines when conducting a prescribed fire, or the best opportunity to start a backfire in fire suppression, can be considered by appropriate modeling approaches and applications that still are not operationally available. This effort builds on previous research efforts in Europe and the United States, but the wide range of Fire Paradox partners allows for a diversity of complementary approaches.
The ultimate goal of Fire Paradox is to influence fire-management policies and practices in Europe. However, because of the diversity of situations, it is not easy to form a consensus about how the different countries and agencies accept the concept of integrated fire management, including the use of fire in prevention and suppression. In France, Portugal and Spain, prescribed fire now is considered an acceptable tool for fuel management. In Italy, some recent developments, mostly related to Fire Paradox, show that the concept is being accepted gradually, whereas no significant developments have been observed in Greece.
The same diversity of situations is true for non-European countries and agencies. Although prescribed fire has been applied successfully in South African pine forests, that is not the situation in Morocco or Tunisia. In Mongolia, the use of prescribed burning has been encouraged recently with the support of Fire Paradox. In Argentina, prescribed fire has been applied mostly on rangelands, and Patagonia has shown a strong renewed interest.
Mostly because of this new interest in the use of prescribed fire in Patagonia, the next plenary meeting of Fire Paradox will be held in Argentina, with participants coming from many other countries in South America. This will be an excellent occasion to disseminate the concept of integrated fire management and to share knowledge between professionals and researchers from the various continents. The final plenary meeting in February 2010 will disseminate to the public the products finalized within the project. It also will promote the continuation of some of the initiatives already started or proposed through annual meetings of fire professionals. Such a forum would promote learning and sharing experiences on the use of fire, as well as cooperating on academic training in the sequence of the International Fire Master Program proposed by the University of Lleida in Spain, Universidade de Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro in Portugal, the University of Idaho and the University of Florida.
Fire Paradox is studying many other aspects of fire, such as the patterns of fire ignition in relation to causes to detect possible trends. Pyrolysis, fire detection, fire anthropology and fire policies also are being reviewed. More information about the project is available at www.fireparadox.org, as well as in presentations from the International Fire Seminar Series promoted by Fire Paradox and the University of Idaho. These include the general approach of the project to integrated fire management by Francisco Rego, a diversity of approaches in modeling by Stefano Mazzoleni and Dominique Morvan, demonstration sites for prescribed burning by Domingo Molina, more integrated approaches to firefighting by Marc Castelnou, and other international experiences by Jim Gould.
Fire Paradox is a large research project on fire that includes various disciplines and approaches, technological developments, and dissemination strategies. But all of those serve the ultimate purpose of influencing policies and practices to consider integrated fire management — with a significant component of fire use — in prevention and suppression.
Dr. Francisco Manuel Cardoso Castro Rego is the International Coordinator for the European Union Fire Paradox Project.