‘Goat fire bri­gade’ helps save Spain forests

Sunday Express - - GAMES/PUZZLES -

WHEN wild­fires sur­rounded his fam­ily-run farm in north­east Spain four years ago, all that Pau Figueras Mundo could do was watch, help­lessly, as the flames edged closer.

Though his goat and sheep farm in Girona re­mained in­tact, the fires raged for two days, burn­ing through 1,359 acres of land and forc­ing more than 100 peo­ple to evac­u­ate.

The fire still haunts Mundo - and now that the 36-year-old has a young fam­ily of his own, know­ing it could hap­pen again is even more ter­ri­fy­ing.

“We work here. Our life is close to the woods.

“We’ve ex­pe­ri­enced big wild­fires, so we’re very wor­ried,” he said, hold­ing a wooden staff as hun­dreds of his an­i­mals grazed in the for­est.

“If there’s a wild­fire, it’ll be right be­hind our farm and that’s our whole life,” said Mundo, whose par­ents live with him in this dry ru­ral area flanked by for­est.

It’s a sce­nario that has be­come all too fa­mil­iar in re­cent months.

Over the sum­mer, Europe was scorched by wild­fires, fu­elled by hot­ter tem­per­a­tures, high winds and poorly man­aged for­est and scrub­land that can of­ten burn along roads and near vil­lages and towns, fire ex­perts say.

Ex­cep­tion­ally dry and hot weather in June ig­nited Por­tu­gal’s worst fire dis­as­ter in mem­ory, killing 64 peo­ple and in­jur­ing a fur­ther 160.

Fires con­tin­ued to flare after­ward with the ar­rival of each new hot­ter spell of weather.

In July, Ital­ian fire­fight­ers fought more than 1,000 wild­fires amid high tem­per­a­tures and drought.

That same month, French fire­fight­ers bat­tled wind-whipped in­fer­nos along the French Riviera coast, the flames torch­ing veg­e­ta­tion on hills over­look­ing glitzy re­sorts, and send­ing tourists flee­ing.

An­i­mal ‘fire bri­gade’

With the threat of wors­en­ing wild­fires on their doorstep, farm­ers like Mundo and Ju­dite Nadal, also liv­ing in ru­ral Girona, are now step­ping up an old agri­cul­tural prac­tice: us­ing their an­i­mals to graze dense forests to re­duce the sever­ity of wild­fires.

“The an­i­mals con­trib­ute very much in sav­ing lives (and) in the health of the forests, by clean­ing them,” said 44-year-old Nadal, who four years ago be­gan rear­ing sheep and goats specif­i­cally to tackle wild­fires.

Un­der the guid­ance of Spain’s Pau Costa Foun­da­tion, an in­de­pen­dent wild­fire preven­tion group, both Nadal and Mundo send their an­i­mals to munch on over­grown ar­eas with a high fire risk.

That helps elim­i­nate un­der­growth that - if it is not re­moved in key ar­eas, such as near vil­lages or homes - can lead to fires spread­ing quickly and burn­ing with greater in­ten­sity, sim­ply be­cause there is more fuel for them, said Oriol Vi­lalta, di­rec­tor of the foun­da­tion.

Once a wild­fire is sparked in an un­kept for­est or scrub­land, it’s al­most im­pos­si­ble to stop, said Vi­lalta, a for­mer fire­fighter with the Cata­lan Fire Ser­vice.

“Fire­fight­ers tell us that they don’t have enough power to fight th­ese high-in­ten­sity fires,” he said.

While fire bri­gades can re­duce the amount of veg­e­ta­tion through planned burns, Vi­lalta said putting an­i­mals on the job was a cheaper, more sus­tain­able so­lu­tion since farm­ers can also sell the milk and meat that re­sults.

“We call them fire­fight­ers. They are not hu­man fire­fight­ers but they help us to pre­vent and sup­press fires,” he said.

‘Go­ing to get worse’

As tem­per­a­tures rise as a re­sult of cli­mate change, Europe’s death toll from weather dis­as­ters, in­clud­ing heat­waves, wild­fires and drought, could in­crease 50-fold by the end of this cen­tury, ac­cord­ing to a study in The Lancet Plan­e­tary Health jour­nal.

“With hu­man-caused cli­mate change, it’s just go­ing to get worse,” said fire ex­pert David Karoly from the Univer­sity of Mel­bourne in Aus­tralia - a largely arid coun­try prone to what are known as ‘bush­fires’.

Karoly said cli­mate change is in­creas­ing the like­li­hood of weather con­di­tions that are con­ducive to wild­fires - namely, less rain­fall and hot­ter tem­per­a­tures.

“Not only do we have more in­tense and more fre­quent fires, but the fire sea­son is start­ing ear­lier in the year and last­ing longer - and all of that is due to cli­mate change,” he told the Thom­son Reuters Foun­da­tion.

Ex­treme fires that were once rare, such as the ‘Black Satur­day’ bush­fires that killed 173 Aus­tralians in 2009, will be­come more fre­quent, pre­dicted Richard Thorn­ton, di­rec­tor of the Bush­fire and Nat­u­ral Haz­ard Co­op­er­a­tive Re­search Cen­tre in Aus­tralia.

“We’re see­ing the same with floods, the same with heat­waves - what used to be a onein-a-thou­sand-year event is now much more fre­quent,” he said.

Though wild­fires are com­mon in hot Mediter­ranean re­gions, in the com­ing decades they are ex­pected to oc­cur more of­ten as well in cooler north­ern Euro­pean coun­tries such as Britain, Swe­den, Germany and Switzer­land, due to ris­ing tem­per­a­tures, Thorn­ton said.

“The fires will move fur­ther north into ar­eas that are not tra­di­tion­ally fire-prone,” he said.

“So a lot of coun­tries are now hav­ing to think about how to do things differently.”

While it’s hard to pre­vent wild­fires from start­ing, Span­ish farmer Mundo said at least he no longer feels en­tirely at the mercy of the el­e­ments with his goats help­ing out.

“I like this job, help­ing to pre­vent wild­fires, be­cause I’m di­rectly af­fected,” he said. “It’s part of the so­lu­tion.” — Reuters

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