As France fights forest fires, experts call for rethinking forest management

France’s battle to contain ferocious forest fires in south-west Gironde entered a second week on Tuesday, with more than 19,000 hectares of pine forest already reduced to ashes. While the ecological and economic damage is immense, some conservationists see the fires as an opportunity to adapt Europe’s largest man-made forest to the challenges of global warming.

French authorities have deployed much of the country’s firefighting capacity to stem the fierce fires that have raged since July 12, fueled by swirling winds and a scorching heatwave.

More than 34,000 people have been driven from their homes and summer vacation spots in the Gironde region, with the flames moving a few kilometers from the famous Dune de Pilat, the highest sand dune in Europe and a hotspot for tourism.

The largest artificial forest on the continent, the nearby Landes forest is caught between two forest fires of exceptional intensity. We have consumed more than 6,500 hectares of vegetation near the maritime basin of Arcachon, renowned for its oysters and its beaches. The other raged further inland, around the town of Landiras, burning some 12,000 hectares.

Between them, the two blazes have already consumed “more than half of the area burned by fires, on average, each year across the country”, said Dominique Morvan, forest fire expert at the University of Aix-Marseille.

“Carbon Bomb”

While the first priority of the authorities is to evacuate people and protect residential areas, experts are already assessing the ecological and economic cost of devastating fires, which are expected to have a profound impact on biodiversity, soil quality and, potentially , weather conditions.

Indeed, “while global warming explains why wildfires are becoming more frequent and intense, such fires can in turn accelerate the rise in temperatures,” said Thomas Smith, assistant professor at the London School of Economics (LSE) which studied the impact of forest fires on climate.

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By consuming the famous pine forests of the Landes, the fires release large amounts of CO2 stored in the trees. When thousands of hectares go up in smoke, “it’s like a carbon bomb exploding,” says Jonathan Lenoir, specialist in forest management at the CNRS research center.

Such effects have been widely documented after Australia’s historic wildfire season in 2019-2020, which triggered widespread algal blooms in the Pacific Ocean and browned New Zealand’s glaciers with ash.

However, experts warn that the emissions boom will be on a much smaller scale in the case of France.

“The excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will certainly have an impact, but it will not be quantifiable on the scale of all other greenhouse gas emissions,” said Jean-Baptiste Filippi, from the CNRS, member of the research group on forest fires at the University of Corsica.

A changing landscape

Another likely consequence of the fires raging in Gironde will be a change in the type of vegetation, said Filippi, noting that the trees and bushes most adapted to climate change also have the best chance of surviving the fires.

>> Read more: How climate change is making extreme weather a regular occurrence

Vegetation that regrows naturally is likely to be more Mediterranean in type, Filippi added, resulting in a landscape similar to the scrubland of southeast France, “which provides less cover, evaporates less water and therefore produces also less freshness”.

While the short-term outlook is bleak, the increase in fires presents “an opportunity to improve longer-term forest management”, LSE’s Smith said.

Forest fires rage across Europe’s scorching southwest

Inevitably, the loss of thousands of pines will have an economic cost for the many industries that depend on the huge Landes forest. Covering one million hectares, the forest is vital for the paper, carpentry, chemical sectors and is also used by energy companies for the development of biomass.

“The economic cost will be calculated both in number of trees lost and in impact on tourism,” Morvan said, noting that the iconic pines of the Landes have become a symbol of the region.

The loss of trees to wildfires will also leave the area exposed to other weather hazards, including flash flooding, he warned.

“When vegetation is abundant, rainwater is quickly absorbed,” Morvan explained. “But when the land is dry, there is a risk of soil leaching, which means the water is not absorbed and washes the soil away.”

Replacement of monoculture

While the short-term outlook is bleak, the increase in fires presents “an opportunity to improve longer-term forest management”, LSE’s Smith said.

According to Lenoir, the fires raging in Gironde have exposed an essential weakness of artificial pine forests, “a monoculture which was decided at a time (in the 1970s) when the question of global warming was absent from the debates”.

Forests with a single type of vegetation “are those where the fire spreads the fastest”, he added, describing the Landes forest as “a matchbox waiting only for the spark of global warming climate to ignite”.

Lenoir hopes the crisis in Gironde will help raise awareness of the need to introduce greater diversity into forests, mixing pine trees with more fire-resistant vegetation.

“We are now paying the price for forest management mistakes in southwestern France,” he said. “Starting on a more resilient footing will involve fostering more heterogeneous vegetation, in some cases letting the forest grow back naturally.

This article has been adapted from the original in French.


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