News - July 4, 2019

Make room for fire sometimes

Roelof Kleis

The Netherlands should learn to live with fire, just as it has learned to live with water. In the near future, WUR will be taking on four PhD students who will work out how we can do that.

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The four will work under the auspices of PyroLife, a large European training programme that will be training a total of 15 wildfire experts. The project will be led by WUR researcher Cathelijne Stoof of the Soil Geography and Landscape chair group, who is an expert on wildfires. Part of the Marie Curie Innovative Training Networks, the project will have a budget of four million euros. 

Why are you going to train wildfire experts?

‘Wildfires are increasingly common as a result of climate change. Last year about 1000 fires were reported in the Netherlands. The old approach was to fight fire. But trying to extinguish it can be a losing battle. We need to go one step further, towards living with fire and making room for fire.’

10-WET portretje Cathelijne Stoof.jpg

Should we really make room for fire?

‘Fire is a natural process. Fire cleans up. If you let fire runs its course, it can lead to a lot of small fires. If you suppress fire, you get  a few massive fires occasionally. The trick is to manage that well, comparable with what we do with water to prevent flooding in places where we don’t want it. Our landscapes and our rivers are examples of how we reckon with water. We can do the same with fire. Just as we’ve made ‘room for the river’ (the name of a major flood prevent project, ed.), we can make room for fire. The risks are greatest in places where vegetation and people come together. In such places you must think carefully about where you let fire spread and where you should take steps to prevent it. Ultimately, this should lead to fires having less impact and staying smaller.’

What are the four Wageningen PhD students going to do?

‘The Wageningen PhD students are going to work on adapting landscape design to the risk of fire, the effects of fire and ash on soil and water, applying lessons learned from flood prevention to dealing with wildfires, and bridging the gap between scientists and practitioners. At the heart of PyroLife is an exchange of knowledge across Europe: southern European knowledge about wildfires and northern European knowledge about water management.