By Paolo Fiorucci, Massimo Galardi, Dario Negro and Andrea Gollino
Project Leader of CIMA Research Foundation, Ph.D. in Environmental Monitoring at the University of Basilicata
Because of its geographical conformation, Italy may be regarded as an extension of the European continent that, through the Mediterranean, almost reaches the coasts of Africa. Its position has always represented the point of contact between Europe, Africa and Asia. Extending vertically, from the Alps in the north to the large islands of Sicily and Sardinia, located just a few kilometres from the African coast, Italy is highly heterogeneous in terms of both climate and vegetation. The same diversity is also observed in its topography. Only 23% of the land is flat, 40% is hilly and the remaining 37% is characterized by complex topography with steep slopes and rapid changes in aspect. It is in these areas that most of the forest cover is concentrated, accounting for a total of 35% of the territory. The high heterogeneity makes Italy vulnerable to forest fires both in the summer and in winter. In particular, northern regions are predominantly characterized by a winter fire regime, mainly due to frequent extremely dry winds from the north, while southern and central regions and the large islands are characterized by a severe summer fire regime, because of the higher temperatures and prolonged lack of precipitation.
The threat of wildfires in Italy is not confined to wooded areas as they extend to agricultural areas and urban-forest interface areas. The agricultural and rural areas, from the 50s to now, have been gradually abandoned, especially in areas with complex topography, where the mechanization of agriculture is unfavourable. Many of these areas were transformed into timber yards, after World War II, leading to the spread of pioneer species mainly represented by Pinus Pinaster and Pinus Nigra, which are highly vulnerable to fire. Because of the frequent spread of fire, these areas are limited to the early successional stages, consisting mainly of shrub vegetation; its survival in the competition with the climax species being ensured by the spread of fire itself. Due to the frequency of fire ignition — almost entirely man caused — the time between fires on the same area is at least an order of magnitude less than the time that would allow the establishment of forest climax species far less vulnerable to fire. The high frequency of man-made fires is primarily due to a higher population density than the European average. In fact, with an area of 300,000 km2 and a population that has long passed the 60 million mark, Italy is among the five countries with the highest population density in Europe. Considering the number of wildfires since 1970, it can be noted that over 9000 wildfires burn an average of more than 1,000 km2 per year. However, it can be noted, in the last decade, a strong negative trend with a reduction in the number of fires and burned area. This behaviour is totally inconsistent with those who have announced an increase in the number of days characterised by conditions of extreme risk, resulting in an increased number of wildfires and burned areas around the Mediterranean basin because of climate change. Which factors may be associated with this behaviour? One component may be ascribed to climate change as stated by Flannigan et al. (2000) in their discussion about the correlation between rising temperatures and increased forest fire severity, ‘Increasing temperature alone does not necessarily guarantee greater fire disturbance’. However, the effect of climate variability does not fully explain the negative trend, which should be attributed to increased monitoring and prevention activities and to an increasingly efficient fire suppression. A marked increase in prevention activities and a better organization of the forest fire service, with an ever-increasing deployment of men and vehicles, led to a rapid change in the effects of wildfires throughout the country.
It should be emphasized, however, that the relatively high number of water bomber and the increased efficiency of fire extinguishing operations were not sufficient to contain the catastrophic effect of 2007, when the total burned area reached one of the highest values of the past 40 years, causing 11 casualties. Almost 50% of the total burned area was covered by fire in little more than a week, namely the last week of July. The regions of central and southern Italy were mainly affected by the phenomenon. In the same season, about a month later the events that devastated Italy and South Eastern Europe, Greece recorded the worst risk situation that resulted in the death of 67 people, most of them civilians.
The summer season of 2007 was characterized by extreme climatic conditions with prolonged periods of relative humidity below 30% and temperatures above 40 ° C in most of the country that led to dead fuel moisture conditions of less than 5%. These conditions, associated with strong winds, led to almost uncontrollable situations of risk even with the aid of water bombers. The events of 2007 further emphasised how forest fires not only cause damage to forests, but can often turn into real civil protection emergencies, like other natural hazards. Due to the ever-growing interface between rural and urban or recreational areas, the propagation of fire increasingly affects people, infrastructures and productive activities.
During the fire of Peschici of July 24, 2007, thousands of tourists were rescued by boat while flames and smoke blown by the strong wind were moving rapidly toward the crowded beaches of the Gargano. This type of fires requires a close synergy between the various entities involved in risk monitoring and mitigation activities. In this context, the Civil Protection Department launched several initiatives aimed at gaining more attention from all relevant authorities from national to local level. Coordination groups were organized at the regional level to support local governments in civil protection emergencies by providing detailed maps of interface areas at risk and by promoting the development and adoption of regional early-warning systems. These activities have already involved 12 out of the 20 Italian regions and 3614 municipalities. All this was made possible after the approval and subsequent implementation of the framework law on forest fires, L.353/2000. The spirit of the law is to promote activities aimed at reducing the causes of ignition, adopting forecast tools and defining operating protocols for prevention activities intended to mitigate the consequences of the fire spreading and improve the efficiency of fire extinguishing activities. According to Law 353 all the competences in connection with forest fires are transferred to the Regions, leaving only the water bombers fleet management at national level. The reduction of the causes is achieved through the introduction of restrictions on the burned areas. In these areas it is forbidden to change the land use for 15 years, to build houses, hotels, infrastructures and to establish productive activities for 10 years, to engage in hunting and grazing for 10 years, to perform reforestation activities and environmental engineering works for 5 years after the spreading of fire. The application of these restrictions is possible through the creation of a record of burned areas to be set up and maintained by municipalities, which must include the geo-referred perimeter of all the burned areas. The framework law, moreover, introduced the offence of arson, by an amendment to the Penal Code, which is punished with a prison term of 4 to 10 years. If the cause of ignition proves to be unintentional, the sentence is reduced from 1 to 5 years depending on the severity of the damage caused.
Each region has the right to organize its own fire fighting structure using a permanent unified operations room (Sala Operativa Unificata Permanente) where staff of the Corpo Nazionale dei Vigili del Fuoco, Corpo Forestale dello Stato, voluntary organizations, the Armed Forces and Police Forces as well as regional staff can reside. Each region must draw up a forecast, prevention and fire suppression plan containing maps of the areas at risk of fire. As a result of the delegation of powers to the regions in the field of forest fires, each region became autonomously organized according to the different features characterising forest fire regimes. For example, some regions — during the period of maximum danger — are now able to issue forecast reports in full autonomy, to alert the fire suppression system through special regional procedures and to provide the regional civil protection system with support in decision-making, both in the preventive phase and in the presence of going fires. Those regions that are not yet able to issue reports using their own forecasting systems, can refer to the report issued on a national scale by the National Civil Protection Department. The report is a valuable tool in supporting early warning activities for the regional civil protection systems, although primarily intended for the pre-operational management of the state aircraft fleet, i.e. sending the aircraft to the airbases closer to the areas denoted by highest risk as a prevention measure.
The forecast report is prepared on the basis of subjective evaluations by using weather forecasts provided by the Central Functional Centre and wildfire forecasting models such as RISICO and FWI, taking into account the situation of active wildfires throughout the country on a daily basis.
The FWI is published daily by the JRC in Ispra concerning the entire Mediterranean basin and can be accessed via the web at http://effis.jrc.ec.europa.eu/. The RISICO system, operating 24/365 since 2003, was developed for the National Civil Protection Department, and it is constantly updated from both a technical and a scientific point of view by CIMA Foundation (www.cimafoundation.org). RISICO can be accessed both through a dedicated platform, installed in the hall of the Central Functional Centre, and via web with password-protected access at http://dewetra.cimafoundation.org.
Observe to predict, predict to prevent
The Civil Protection Department makes use of 40 national research centres for support activities on risk prevention and risk assessment. Among them, CIMA Research Foundation provide tools and methods for hydro meteorological and wildfire risk.
Every day, weather forecasts provided by the general circulation models and limited area models available, as well as all weather observations provided by the official Italian network are received, handled and used as input to CIMA Foundation’s models. The models developed and constantly enhanced by Foundation researchers, thanks to the continuous feedback from end users, are mainly aimed at the prediction of hydrogeological and forest fire risk. Among these, RISICO is one of the fully operational systems provided by the Foundation to the National Civil Protection Department. RISICO has already been adopted by some regions (Regione Liguria and Regione Sardegna) proving extremely useful and accurate in assessing potential danger, and its adoption is currently being evaluated by Albania and Lebanon, as part of international cooperation projects. Suffice it to say that the system was able to identify extreme risk situations limited to 4 days in 4 years, ranking as regions at extreme risk only the regions where most destructive events were recorded, which in most cases caused casualties, never underestimating the severity of the events. The core of RISICO consists of a module which is very similar to the FFMC of FWI, suitably resized and adapted to the vegetation cover of the Mediterranean. Given the characteristics of the Mediterranean vegetation, the only dynamic component of the system is represented by dead fuel moisture adapted to different types of vegetation cover. In the areas most frequently affected by fire, dead fuel moisture can go from saturation values, following precipitations, to values below 10% in less than 12 hours. For this reason, we thought that — starting from the first version of the system — feeding the system with weather forecasts, although subject to uncertainty, was the only way to provide useful information for the alert system. The ability to forecast the risk for the next 72 hours, with constant use of observations to correct the state of the system in real time thus reducing the uncertainty of the forecast, allows relocation of aircraft, on a national scale, from low risk areas to high risk areas, reducing the response time and optimizing the scarce resources available.
Forecasts provided by the RISICO system are used for operational decisions even in the presence of extreme events that required international assistance to deal with emergencies. The last, was the case in Russia during the summer of 2010. At that time, the situation of low to average potential danger throughout the country encouraged the decision to reduce the water bomber fleet without running the risk of facing emergency situations with a small number of water bomber.
Examples of good practice: Regione Liguria
At a regional scale, potential danger forecasting makes it possible to alert the volunteer squads and actors involved in fire suppression enhancing monitoring and protection of the territory that may prevent the ignition of fires and, in any case, makes it possible to significantly reduce the elapsed time following the detection of a wildfire. In this context, Regione Liguria — where CIMA Foundation is based and with which it has collaborated in the field of fire risk and hydrogeological risk for many years — is surely the Italian region that has reached the most mature level of activity in the use of forecasting tools. Regione Liguria is among the few regions affected by fire risk both in the summer, as many of the central south regions, and in the winter, as many of the northern regions. The frequency of wildfires and the constant pressure of the phenomenon throughout the year led Regione Liguria to acquire tools and procedures intended for a more efficient risk management in advance of many other Italian regions. Since 1987 the number of wildfires and the total area affected by fire per year have shown great variability, with maximum values recorded between 1989 and 1990. 1,690 wildfires occurred in 1989 and an area affected by fire of over 20,000 ha was recorded the following year, respectively. The number of wildfires observed in the region over the past 5 years has averaged just over 300 wildfires per year for a total covered area of about 2,000 ha per year. Although the data of the 2010 season are not yet final, the first estimates show a number of fires just over 100 for a total burned area of around 120 ha, which can be considered negligible compared to an area of 20000 ha of 20 years ago.
The SPIRL system, created and updated by CIMA Foundation researchers, has been autonomously used by Regione Liguria for about 10 years. Regione Liguria and Corpo Forestale dello Stato, entrusted with the coordination of activities for preventing and extinguishing forest fires by Regione Liguria under a specific convention, developed protocols and operating procedures aimed at improving preventive measures, which have been applied throughout the region during periods of increased risk of fire for several years. These preventive measures are mainly implemented through the active participation of the volunteer forest fire fighting and civil protection services, which have played a more and more decisive role for the protection of forests and territory in Liguria in recent years. Prevention activities allow for a better management of the resources allocated to forest fire prevention, especially in times of very limited financial resources.
Based on the forecasting of the danger index for the following day output by the SPIRL system, monitoring and patrolling activities are performed in all areas where the danger index exceeds the level of alert, based on a prevention plan already defined earlier in the season. The availability of forecasts of potential danger conditions has led to consider, for several years, the possibility of operatively structuring the participation of volunteers not only in the fire suppression phase but also in the prevention phase. Following a detailed analysis phase, it will soon be possible to define common protocols aimed at monitoring and protecting the territory as preventive measure in areas classified as high risk areas. This activity provides for a presence in the territory which translates into the capability to detect dangerous situations in advance (presence of controlled fires) and the possibility to punish the person responsible in case of serious danger. In addition to the direct prevention activity, the presence of volunteers and CFS in the territory also plays a role in deterring potential arsonists. The continued collaboration with CIMA Foundation recently led to the new risk mapping. With the availability of fire perimeters mapped over a period of more than 10 years, originally acquired in order to create the record of the burned areas as required by the Framework Law 353/2000, a procedure was defined in order to assess areas at risk with high spatial resolution (400 m2) based on objective criteria by observing past fire events. In fact, in view of the limited availability of resources, most of which are used in the management of regional air service (4 regional helicopters), it is necessary to precisely identify the areas most vulnerable to fire risk. The few resources available can thus be used on a yearly basis to mitigate problems in the areas at highest risk by defining a program of forest management interventions, which is expected to make a significant contribution to the problem in a few years’ time. The goal of such detailed planning is to dramatically reduce the costs associated with water bombers fleet management and fire extinguishing actions, leaving more resources to improve safety in areas at risk.
Obstacles on the way
Unfortunately, the recent global economic crisis could have disastrous consequences also on the complex organization which has resulted in a drastic reduction of damages caused by the spread of forest fires. In fact, the resources allocated to the regions by the state are shrinking year by year. The regions, which have become autonomously organized in recent years, are now struggling to maintain the resources devoted to fire prevention and fire suppression. Furthermore, the regions are forced to completely revise the organization of the relevant structures, creating a period of great instability and uncertainty. This transition is likely to bring us back to the situation of 20 years ago. Although the organizational forest fire fighting structure was significantly improved, the vulnerability of vegetation cover was not reduced and in some cases even increased significantly. Most likely, years will pass before we all understand that the private sector should actively participate in forest conservation. In this context, the Kyoto protocol, together with the European common agricultural policy can be a great tool to boost the sustainable management of forest cover.
Dr. Paolo Fiorucci is a leading scientific researcher at the CIMA Research Foundation in Savona, Italy. Main research interests focus on fire danger rating and modelling of climate-vegetation-wildfire interactions. Developer of operational systems for potential forest fire danger assessment both on a Regional and National scale. He can be reached email@example.com.
Massimo Galardi is a regional official at Regione Liguria. Since 1992, Galardi works on forecasting, prevention and fire fighting activities at regional level. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dario Negro and Andrea Gollino work in the Department of Civil Protection, dealing with forecasting, planning and prevention of forest fires and fires in wildland urbane interface. They are responsible for the emission of daily bulletin on wildland fire risk at national level. They can be reached at email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org.