Eucalyptus trees contribute to Portugal’s wildfire problem

When numerous fires burned through large expanses of Portugal in June killing more than 60 people, they were fueled in some areas by monocultures of eucalyptus trees. Many areas around the world grow them in order to harvest the wood, leaves, and oil to make paper and medicine. But wildfires burn rapidly under the trees and through the crowns, fed by the stringy bark, oil, and the leaves and forest litter on the ground that do not decompose. Earlier this year we took this photo after a fire in Chile spread through a plantation.

wildfire eucalyptus plantation
The aftermath of a wildfire that burned through a eucalyptus plantation in Chile, February 2, 2017.

The New York Times published an article today that looks at how eucalyptus and other issues combine to create a wildfire environment in Portugal that is difficult to manage.

Here is an excerpt:

…Even so, Portugal’s wood industry no longer relies on native species like oak and pine. Instead, it is increasingly built on eucalyptus, which feeds a pulp and paper sector that makes up 10 percent of Portuguese exports. The area of eucalyptus planting has more than doubled since the 1980s.

Eucalyptus can be harvested in half the time needed for pine. And unlike other species, “you have absolutely no need for people on the ground” to supervise its growth, said João Camargo, an environmental engineer.

The tree, however, contains a highly flammable oil that helps fires erupt more easily, spread and intensify.

Yet after every fire, more landowners switch to eucalyptus, hoping that a shorter production cycle can allow them to recoup their losses faster and to harvest their trees before the next fire erupts.

It is an accelerating sequence that has turned Portugal “from a pretty diverse forest into a big eucalyptus monoculture,” Mr. Camargo said.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, Bill Gabbert now writes about it from the Black Hills.

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