Student - April 10, 2008

Fire protects nature

The chance is great that the Netherlands will be hit more often by wildfires in the future. That is, unless we start fires ourselves more often, say scientists. Using controlled fire in the winter can prevent worse fires during a hot summer.

A group of fire specialists from the whole world gathered in Wageningen during the first week of April to contribute a course at the Production Ecology and Resource Conservation (PE&RC) graduate school. They are in favour of using fire more to manage areas of nature.

‘In the Western perception, fire is a threat that we prefer to exclude as far as possible,’ tells Dr Claudius van de Vijver of PE&RC. But that’s impossible according to Professor William Bond, a botanist at the University of Cape Town. ‘The world is made to burn. Without fires we lose species that have adapted to it, and areas become overgrown.’

More vegetation also increases the chance of serious fires. ‘The more biomass, the hotter the fire and the more difficult it is to control,’ explains Van de Vijver. ‘Think of Portugal, Greece and the US, where fires were banned and as a result biomass accumulated. This led to uncontrollable fires.’

The same can happen in the Netherlands, Van de Vijver thinks. ‘The area of nature has increased a lot in the last ten years. And the summers are getting warmer and wetter, so plants grow faster. This means there is more material that can burn. In a period of no rain, this dries out and becomes inflammable. A spark from a slow-moving train or a cigarette end carelessly tossed away would be enough to set fire to the whole of the Hoge Veluwe nature reserve, he warns.

According to the experts, conscious use of fire in the winter can prevent a natural disaster like this from happening. ‘In the winter months, fires do not get very hot and most animals are underground. If we burn controlled areas of nature there will be far less inflammable material around in the summer,’ says Van de Vijver. ‘If a fire then does start in the summer, it will not spread, or if it does, its extent will be limited.’

Germany is already experimenting with fire. On the Drover Heide, in North Rhein Westphalia, managers burn small areas. On the Stabrechtse Heide in the Netherlands managers have also started doing a small amount of fire management. ‘This leads to a mosaic landscape, which helps to confine fire in the summer,’ explains Van de Vijver. ‘Moreover, small fires improve biodiversity because they help create a more heterogeneous landscape.’