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Last Updated: Tuesday, 28 August 2007, 15:31 GMT 16:31 UK
Fires: Counting the eco-cost
By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website

Helicopter over fire. Image: AFP/Getty
Fires are being fought in Greece and the Balkans
Look at the dramatic pictures, and it would be easy to conclude that the forest fires currently raging across regions of Greece would bring dramatic changes to landscapes and wildlife.

And what about all that carbon dioxide? A significant impact on climate change?

Despite the long history of burning bushes around the Med, there is much for scientists still to discover about the ecological effects of fire.

"In terms of processes like degradation in these burnt areas, we don't have a clear idea," says Paulo Barbosa from the European Commission's Institute for Environment and Sustainability.

"We know that when you have very large fires and have heavy rains afterwards, that can induce erosion and soil loss.

"But... if we talk about shrubland vegetation, it should take about three to four years to return to conditions before the fire. With forests, we can talk about 10, 20, 30, even 40 years to return to their original conditions."

Uniform weakness

Forests in many regions of the world including the Mediterranean have evolved to withstand fire, even to flourish in it.

It's not just about putting trees back for the sake of the trees.
Tamas Marghescu, IUCN
"In general terms, these sorts of forest will almost certainly have had fire through them before, so species in them will be fire-tolerant," notes Keith Kirby, forestry and woodland office with Natural England.

But the ecological impact depends on the heat of the fire. A light blaze may leave root systems unscathed, whereas a major conflagration can kill them off.

Recent changes, Dr Kirby suggests, might make Mediterranean forests a little more vulnerable than they were.

"In other Mediterranean countries, impacts have been exacerbated through large plantations of uniform, flammable species such as conifers and eucalypts. You'll have the risk that species will be isolated in unburned patches and not be able to recolonise."

Thinking ahead

The World Conservation Union (IUCN) is assembling a task force to research and restore the newly burned regions of Greece, and other affected countries such as Cyprus and Serbia, when the flames have died.

"We're intending to focus on protected areas and national parks, which is something we are specialised in and where we could give some assistance to affected states," says Tamas Marghescu, IUCN's regional director for Europe.

"What's very important is that it's not just restoration of the ecosystem, but of ecosystem services important for human beings.

Firefighter. Image: Getty
Dry, hot and windy conditions contribute to fires spreading
"A critical watershed for example serves as source of mineral water; that's income for the entire region and a fundamental life support system. So it's not just about putting trees back for the sake of the trees."

Which trees to put back is a big question. Climate change promises to make much of the Mediterranean region warmer and drier, to reduce the availability of water which is already scarce in some areas, notably parts of the Iberian peninsula.

Does it make sense, then, to replace burnt trees like for like?

Mr Marghescu thinks not. He believes the fires represent an opportunity as well as a threat - an opportunity to bring the demands of the forest more into line with what the future climate will provide.

Trees vulnerable to fire and drought could be replaced by other species more resistant to flames and more thrifty with water.

To those who might protest at a deliberate changing of the ecosystem, he replies: "An ecosystem is not something rigid; it is always moving in some direction, and there is always a change of species happening.

"We just intending to assist that adaptation, so we do not have a collapse of the ecosystem through climate change."

Even picture

The Greek fires of 2007 were created by a combination of people deciding to light them, and meteorological conditions that made spontaneous ignition and spread more likely.

As in Spain and Portugal in 2003 and many other summers, high temperatures, low humidity and strong winds created and fanned innumerable flames.

Greece battles against devastating forest fires

The actual amounts of forest lost are small. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates forest cover in Europe, excluding Russia, at 193 million hectares.

The average lost around the Med each year, at 450,000 hectares, is tiny against this backdrop.

But with European temperatures apparently increasing decade by decade, are fires on the increase?

Apparently not, says Paulo Barbosa, who runs the European Forest Fire Information System (Effis).

"There is great variability," he says. "Last year only 380,000 hectares burned, while in 2003, almost a million burned.

"So you see extreme events, but it's hard to say there's a trend."

So the disappearance of European forests is unlikely to be a major contributor of greenhouse gases in the future.

In fact, European forest cover is increasing, by about half a percent each year. Spain alone is adding nearly 300,000 hectares to the mix annually.

Globally, forest loss and land use change is a major driver of increased greenhouse gas concentrations, though the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) ranks its importance second behind fossil fuel use.

If previous years are a guide, this summer's fires in Greece, Cyprus and the Balkans will fade with the autumn rains - unlike parts of Indonesia, for example, where some forests contain peat beds which have smouldered for years.

The rains should put a dampener on the idea that the flames, despite their impact on the lives of those directly affected, herald long-lasting environmental change.



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