Can forest restoration reduce the threat of megafires?
The record-breaking wildfires that engulfed the western United States this year show the danger from global heating and ecosystem decline, but also light up opportunities for forest and landscape restoration to reduce the threat of catastrophic fires.
Altered rainfall patterns are lengthening fire seasons from the Mediterranean to Australia. Record heat and drought are sucking moisture from trees and undergrowth. And some regions are seeing more violent thunderstorms, whose lightning can provide a fateful spark.
Scientists say forest restoration and other natural solutions could provide up to one-third of the mitigation needed to keep global warming below 2°C.
"Anything that combats climate change, including restoring and expanding the store of carbon and moisture in soils, is helping to reduce the risk of extreme wildfires,” said Tim Christophersen, head of the Nature for Climate Unit at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
Large-scale forest conservation and restoration can also counter extreme wildfire more directly. While intact forests may become more diverse and less fire-prone with age, where forests are degraded restoration can help to accelerate their return to a more natural condition.
More people need to have a stake in restoring and managing these landscapes, and more support from governments and business in order to make it happen.
Peter Moore, forest fire expert, FAO
Fighting fire with fire
In many temperate forest ecosystems, restoring natural fire patterns is vital, experts say. That means ending a common focus on preventing fire at all costs. Landscapes that burn cyclically contain less flammable material. When fire does occur, it spares larger trees, invigorates the ecosystem and is less likely to threaten people.
Letting wildfires run their course may be the most effective way to restore some types of forest, especially in remote areas. Near towns and villages, managed burning may be safer. Fires can be set when weather conditions and soil moisture make the flames easier to contain. Forests can also be thinned by hand or with machinery.
“Wildfire can act as a self-regulating mechanism,” said Cara Nelson, a professor of restoration ecology at the University of Montana, United States. “In forests adapted to frequent fire, we want fire back and that means we need to learn to live with it.”
Restorative principles can be incorporated into strategies to defend properties in fire-prone regions. Residents can plant fire-tolerant native plants around their home and avoid more flammable or exotic species that can become invasive.
Restoration after a wildfire
Forest restoration can also help after a fire. In many situations, forest ecosystems will quickly rebound on their own, depending on the intensity and impacts of the fire. In others, interventions can aid and steer that process.
When fires strip landscapes of vegetation, hillsides are vulnerable to massive erosion that can hinder a forest’s recovery. Reseeding can reduce the risk of soil loss and landslides and protect water supplies. Using native grasses can block invasive competitors.
Where fire has damaged the habitat of rare wildlife, replanting specific trees and plants may help target populations to survive. In eastern Australia, for instance, ecologists are re-establishing mistletoe in forests used by an endangered bird, the regent honeyeater.
Restoration can begin even while a fire is still burning, in the form of first aid and rehabilitation for injured wildlife. Food drops for species whose natural larders have been destroyed can help them survive, as can programmes to control invasive predators.
Active replanting is a focus in forest landscape restoration in some fire-prone areas. In Portugal’s Algarve region, for instance, a project aims to recreate belts of native, fire-resistant cork oak forest among more flammable commercial plantations of eucalyptus and pine.
Portugal is also an example of how reducing the risk from fire can mean restoring the economic and social fabric of whole regions. The country’s new national fire management plan bundles natural and social restoration as one of its five pillars. Measures to prevent catastrophic fires include valuing rural landscapes more highly.
“More people need to have a stake in restoring and managing these landscapes, and more support from governments and business is needed in order to make it happen,” said Peter Moore, a forest fire expert with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). “Strong rural communities can understand the value as well as the risks of fire.”
The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030, led by the United Nations Environment Programme, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and partners, covers terrestrial as well as coastal and marine ecosystems. A global call to action, it will draw together political support, scientific research and financial muscle to massively scale up restoration. Find out how you can contribute to the UN Decade.