PORTO, Portugal – The opening morning of the Eighth International Wildland Fire Conference featured a range of civil leaders, fire managers, and scientific experts who helped circle the delegates around the dilemma of wildland fire: it is the problem and also (sometimes, but not always) the problem’s solution.
How a problem can be its own solution – the fire conundrum – is part of what drew some 1600 delegates from 90 countries to Porto, Portugal in mid-May.
The week-long conference included technical field trips on May 15 and the official opening May 16, followed by a keynote session labeled simply “The Problem.”
The opening included a videotaped welcome from António Guterres, the United Nations secretary-general, who cautioned that “We must keep global warming below 1.5 C” and if we’re to do so, he said, we must energize fire management that includes all voices, including indigenous leaders and communities. (And even though we must act to limit climate change, a UN World Meteorological Organization report this week has forecast a 66 percent chance we’ll reach the 1.5°C increase for a year during the next five years.)
The conference chair, Tiago Oliveira, board chairman of Portugal’s wildfire service Agency for Integrated Rural Fire Management (AGIF), opened with guidance: “We need to take out the emotional side of fire and replace it with the rational management of fire.” Yet he also reminded attendees of the emotional reality of wildland fire. “I am a survivor as many of you are and we are here to build a better future. To ask for help as I did in 2017” – when Portugal endured a storm of fires that killed 120 citizens and firefighters. An article in Scientific Reports suggests that the extreme fire season of 2017 may have been a prelude to future conditions and likewise events that are triggered by climate change effects. The immensity and challenge of these fires also led to the creation of AGIF.
“Every day that we are managing fires we are learning,” Oliveira continued. “We come here to build friendships in fire. The more friends we have in the world of forest fires the more successful we will be. And the world needs our contributions. The world needs less bad fire and more good fire.”
Gordy Sachs, chief of All Hazard and International Fire Support for the U.S. Forest Service and chair of the International Liaison Committee that planned the conference, reiterated the conference’s value globally. Statements from prior conferences [held every four years] influenced Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction and the Paris Agreement on climate, and the 2023 Conference will launch a key transition tool for international cooperation – the Landscape Fire Governance Framework – and will, like prior conferences, make each country and the world safer and more resilient.
Most of the opening, as is typical of international gatherings, offered the sort of civil and governance support that is key to implementing new frameworks. So it was heartening (if also disheartening) to learn from Antonia Cunha, president of Portugal’s North Regional Coordination and Development Commission, that he’s aware and concerned that 26 percent of carbon emissions in 2022 in the region was from forest fires.
Likewise, a commitment from Juan Cabandié, Environment Minister of Argentina, highlighted that his country needs to be more directed at planning and prevention. “We’re the eighth largest country in the world and 70 percent of our land at risk of wildfires,” he said. And to support its goals, Argentina has started its first monitoring system for entire country.
Duarte Cordeira, with Portugal’s Ministry of Environment, also returned the delegates to community. “We know that the best fire management is by the community members. If we want a more resistant forest that can provide economic and sustainable benefits, we cannot have a monoculture. We are increasing our defense with the creation of a protection ring of native forest.” He said already 200 of these native fuel breaks have been planted, with another 470 in the works and a goal of 800 villages. And Cordeira noted the challenge. “Yet 97 percent of rural properties are private,” he said, “so we need to increase subsidy for land consolidation.”
A conference opening offers a frame, and after a break for coffee and Pastéis de Nata, the conference jumped into “The Problem.” More on that soon.