Reducing fuels, increasing wildland firefighter resources, and building more firebreaks are all techniques used in tandem to reduce wildfire risk. Still, they often come with high up-front prices and uncertain long-term payoffs. A new study claims to have found a new mitigation strategy that sidesteps both issues: growing and maintaining banana trees with recycled water.
Some regions have considered building physical buffers out of concrete or metal to reduce fire risk, but those have high installation costs, require annual maintenance, and provide no additional revenue or benefits. So this study’s researchers focused on potential “edible fire buffers,” or specific vegetation that could be grown in wildfire-prone areas that would also produce a crop — and help add to the area’s economy.
To find the best candidate, the team modeled edible fire buffers by examining how the conditions of a historic fire would have changed if the crop had been present. The study used specifically the 2017 Tubbs Fire, since it fit the requirements of burning in a semi-arid region, originated in wildland, was spread by high winds, and then caused significant loss of life and property. The fire burned three California counties in October and was at the time the most destructive fire in the state. The research team used satellite, census, and fuel-type data from Santa Rosa at the time of the fire.
The study found that bananas were the most viable crop among its choices after testing multiple other possibilities. Vineyards, the most common high-value crop in Mediterranean climates, were too flammable to be considered viable for the study. Ginger is a low-flammability crop, but requires mechanical harvesting that could eat into potential revenue. Carob trees are low-flammability, high-yield, and high-value — but are better suited for areas where irrigation is unavailable or too costly.
The banana trees’ high water content, minimal management needs, and suitability for semi-arid and Mediterranean locations such as like California, Mexico, Chile, Australia, and South Africa drove researchers to and in-depth study the crop’s suitability.
“A medium-sized (633 m) banana buffer decreases fireline intensity by 96 percent, similar to the combination of prescribed burns and mechanical thinning, and delays the fire by 316 min, enabling safer and more effective firefighting,” the study said. “We also find that banana buffers with average yield could produce a profit of $56k USD/hectare through fruit sales, in addition to fire mitigation.”
The study found that not only would banana trees mitigate fire under current conditions, but the the trees would still have a protective effect as fires worsen and the climate changes.