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Looking beyond the flames: When does an extreme wildfire start?

Written by Isabeau Ottolini

Isabeau Ottolini is an Early Stage Researcher within the European ITN project, PyroLife. She is researching Community-based Communications on extreme wildfires. For the next few months, she is part of our EFI Bonn Team, as a visiting scholar. This article is based on a presentation Isabeau gave for the association Pego Viu in June (here you can watch it, in Valenciano). 

  • Across the world we are experiencing more and more extreme wildfires, overwhelming fire suppression capacities causing enormous socioeconomic and ecological impacts.  
  • To face this emerging challenge, it is time to go back to the basics and re-examine taken-for-granted assumptions about wildfires.  
  • Today we will look at when an extreme wildfire starts, and why it is so important to look ‘beyond the flames’.  

A deceptively simple question: “when does an extreme wildfire start?” 

The world is experiencing increasingly more extreme wildfires (also called mega-fires). This emergent type of wildfire is so intense, unpredictable, and huge, that it overwhelms the fire services’ capacity to control the fire. Disasters such as seen recently (and currently) in AustraliaPortugalChileWest USA, and Siberia are just a few examples. Not only do extreme wildfires cause immense losses of people’s health, properties, and lives, but also profoundly impact the global environment, decreasing biodiversity and fuelling climate change.  

The more visible part, such as the smoke, the flames, the suppression efforts, distract us from the issues underlying extreme wildfires. Images: Isabeau Ottolini 

To face this emerging challenge, and prevent extreme wildfires from happening, a necessary step is to go ‘back to the basics’ and re-examine taken-for-granted assumptions about wildfires. One of these is about “when does an extreme wildfire start?”. 

The answer seems simple, right? A fire starts whenever fuel and weather conditions are just right, and there’s a source of ignition, either caused by humans – a campfire, fireworks, a debris burn – or by nature, like lightning. So, much effort goes to prevent people from causing fires, accidentally or intentionally, e.g. through wildfire prevention campaigns (images below). And if a wildfire does start, the typical response is to suppress it as soon as possible (read here why fire suppression paradoxically leads to more disasters). But… what if the fire becomes so intense and big that fire services can no longer handle it? This is the current situation.  

Looking beyond the flames: the long-term processes leading to extreme wildfires 

Many ecosystems are becoming increasingly wildfire-prone. Higher temperatures, less rainfall (both contributing to droughts), more extreme weather conditions, and the build-up of dry vegetation increases the chances of wildfire disasters. And no matter how hard we try to prevent fires from starting, it is impossible to prevent all. In a wildfire-prone area, if a fire does not start one day by a careless person BBQing, it might start another month through lightning, or the year after by sparks from railroads.   

We need to look beyond the visible part of extreme wildfires: flames, the smoke, the destruction in settlements and ecosystems. Because these are symptoms, distracting us from the underlying, long-term processes that lead to extreme wildfires (in the Catalan documentary, The Big Silence, in this scene they reflect on it). As long as we mostly deal with wildfires with a short-term perspective and reacting to the symptoms, the underlying issues fuelling the global wildfire crisis remain unaddressed.  

Climate change, decreased land management, and depopulation are just some of the root causes of extreme wildfires.
Images: Isabeau Ottolini 

So, which processes lead to extreme wildfires? Firstly, this depends on the specific place and moment in time. Aspects that might lead to extreme wildfires in Spain, might be less important in places like Chile or the Netherlands. Or what wasn’t relevant 100 years ago, is now a key aspect.  

In any case, it can be said that several global processes (there are, of course, many more) – all deeply intertwined – as some of the root causes of extreme wildfires.  

The ‘war against fire’ 

Fire is essential in many ecosystems across the world. But during the 20th century, the standard response to wildfires became suppressing all of them, as fire was considered as something bad, to be fully eradicated. However, without low-intensity, recurrent fires burning away any dead or dry vegetation, all these ready-to-burn fuels are accumulating (for more, you can read here and here

Changes in land management and depopulation 

Until not long ago, most of the world’s population depended directly on the land surrounding them, and through activities like agriculture, forestry, and grazing, created fire-resilient mosaic landscapes. However, these activities’ current lack of economic viability (unless done on an industrial scale, bringing along many other issues), leads to land abandonment and further fuel accumulation in often homogeneous, continuous, forest masses.  

Exclusion of indigenous and local knowledge 

In many places, people have used the fire since times immemorial, both as a land management tool and for cultural and spiritual reasons. However, throughout the past centuries many (indigenous) peoples have been prohibited to use fire, and their essential knowledge on fire have been excluded from present wildfire management (for more, read here and here)  

As the number of extreme wildfires is increasing, it is key to understand that, with wildfires, there is more than meets the eye. It’s not just huge flames, thick smoke, and fancy fire suppression technology.  Image: Isabeu Ottolini

Climate change 

As the world’s forests become more fire-prone due to the abovementioned processes, climate change is making wildfires even more likely to happen, through higher temperatures, severe droughts, extreme meteorological events like intense lightning storms, and strong winds, etc (read more here, for instance). 


Compared to focussing just on short-term wildfire prevention and fire suppression, it is harder to dive into the root causes of extreme wildfires and come up with structural solutions. However, as extreme wildfires are increasing, it is key to understand that, with wildfires, there is more than meets the eye. It’s not just huge flames, thick smoke, and fancy fire-suppression technology.  

Only if we a) identify the root causes of extreme wildfires, and b) fully recognize and accept how intertwined extreme wildfires are with the other major social, environmental, and economic challenges of our times, we might find ways to turn the tables on the global wildfire crisis.  

This, in fact, is linked to my PhD thesis on Community-based Communication. By taking the question “when does an extreme wildfire start?” as a starting point, it becomes clear that we need to complement current Risk Communication efforts. This includes, amongst others, communicating about wildfires with more long-term and holistic perspectives; engaging openly with root causes of these disasters; and including the knowledge and experiences of communities living in wildfire-prone areas. More about this in a next blog! 


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