Could an EU project prevent the repetition of this year's devastating forest fires?

September 15, 2003

Brussels, 12 Sep 2003

The hot, dry weather in Europe over the summer was disastrous for many countries, not least Portugal, which experienced its worst ever forest fires, resulting in the loss of 18 lives, over 200,000 hectares of natural habitat and damage estimated at around one billion euro.

As authorities in Portugal and at European level reflect on what could have been done differently, a team of researchers working on an EU funded project is being asked for its opinions, with the hope of preventing such losses from ever occurring again.

The SPREAD project can be seen as a forerunner to the new Integrated Projects, which will be funded under the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6). It is an amalgamation of three smaller projects, and involves 26 partners from ten countries. The creation of one larger project was suggested by the European Commission.

'We are looking at the three time steps of forest fires: before, during and after,' explained project coordinator Domingos Xavier Viegas from the University of Coimbra.

The first phase comprises fire prevention, characterisation of the conditions leading to forest fires and risk maps. The second addresses what takes place during a fire, and involves the development of fire spread models and smoke dispersion, while the third phase is described by Professor Viegas as the 'fire ecology package', and involves mitigating the effects of forest fires and improved forest management. A fourth pillar of the project ensures that society is taken into account by the researchers. Those working on this aspect of the project are tackling fire safety education and fire management training.

In addition, the consortium is also seeking to promote the transfer of knowledge to relevant users and to create a dialogue on forest fires. This aspect has already been successful. Work done in a previous project resulted in the recommendation of one method of fire characterisation, which has now been adopted as the standard method in Europe. The SPREAD project, together with a private company, has also developed a multi terrain vehicle, with built-in GPS and meteorology equipment and various cameras. The vehicle provides a field time view of what is happening on the ground in several locations, and was very much in demand during this summer's fires.

But it is not only the researchers' practical results in which the authorities are interested. 'We are already cooperating with national institutions and giving advice on what went well and what didn't go well,' Professor Viegas told CORDIS News. 'One of the worst things is the loss of confidence - people saw lives and property in danger. It is now being considered what can be done to restore this confidence.'

Professor Viegas has also been contacted by a Commission official to arrange a meeting for reflection, where his and his colleagues' opinions will be sought on what further research is required, and which instruments are necessary to prevent such devastation in the future.

The project partners are conducting their own research into the way in which Portugal's fires were tackled over the summer. Researchers in Portugal have organised interviews in order to establish why 18 people lost their lives. They having been asking eyewitnesses what happened in each case, and why.

A common cause for these deaths appears to have been the 'blow up' phenomenon, so called because of the sudden explosion of firewood which it entails. 'This surprises people and can kill. Most accidents occur then,' said Professor Viegas.

Coincidentally, this is one of the areas where the project has achieved its most remarkable results. Laboratory and field experiments have resulted in the development of the first ever physical model, which could be used to predict when blow up is likely to occur.

Professor Viegas also counts their smoke dispersion model as another success. 'Smoke often creates more harm than the flames. It is disorientating and people get confused,' he explained.

This array of positive results demonstrates how successful the SPREAD project has been, and the team is currently only half way through the allotted research period. It is therefore surprising to hear that the researchers have found the number of partners involved in the project to be quite a challenge. All partners are, however, aware of the difficulties, and are making a positive effort to increase integration with initiatives that may be instructive for future Integrated Project participants.

'We expected these integration problems,' said Professor Viegas. 'We wanted each section to get on its feet and so we held meetings to explain to the others what was happening in each section. It's not easy to get people to work in areas which are not their area of interest,' he added.

Professor Viegas created a steering group, involving two people from each of the four areas of research, in order to facilitate communication, which he believes has been very successful. Bringing everyone together for field experiments also proved successful in terms forging relations between the many partners. All partners gathered in Portugal in order to observe the burning of plots, with each team of researchers observing different aspects of the fire.

The full involvement of the one non-European partner, from Canada, has also been difficult. But the Canadian contribution is definitely a positive one, according to Professor Viegas, as it has enabled field experiments involving ground fires, which are not possible in Europe.

Looking to the future, the consortium is considering building an even larger project in order to continue research under FP6. Nothing has been finalised, but the next project could also address other risks. 'The Commission is encouraging multi-risk aspects. It wants a common language for all risks,' explained Professor Viegas.
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CORDIS RTD-NEWS / © European Communities

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