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New concepts: How to prevent forest fires


Climate change is also leaving its mark in Germany: drought, heat and long periods of drought. How must forests be designed in the future to reduce the risk of large forest fires?

Climate change is making itself felt in Germany’s forests. Winter droughts and longer periods of drought in general create stressful, difficult situations for the forest. In Germany, the past year 2022 was accompanied by many forest fires. It was an extreme year like 2019, in which around 2700 hectares of forest burned. That corresponds to 27 square kilometers or about 3781 soccer fields.

Experts have developed and established an action plan for forest and fire services, for example within the research project Wildfire Climate Resilience (WKR). Various technologies are also intended to support forest fire prevention.

Forest fires can cause lasting damage to forests

If a fire spreads through the forest in this country, the stability and vitality of the ecosystem will be impaired. In a ground fire, the roots and seeds are damaged or destroyed. A ground fire can also accelerate mineralization processes and cause important nutrients to be washed out. In the event of a fire, additional greenhouse gases such as CO2 would also be released, so that the forest would no longer help to reduce the CO2 level in the air, but would itself become a source of CO2 emissions Federal Environment Agency.

Dry winters also increase the risk

In recent years, the risk of forest fires in Germany has increased significantly. Not only the drought in summer promotes forest fires; the lack of precipitation in winter also results in insufficient water supply for the soil. The trees lack the near-surface soil water. Less snow and thus less snowmelt consequently increases the risk of forest fires, according to Johann Goldammer from the University of Freiburg in an interview with the SWR.

Brandenburg is increasingly affected by forest fires, but this also happened in Baden-Württemberg last year, especially in the district of Karlsruhe. The Freiburg Forest Research and Testing Institute (FVA) and the European Forest Institute (EFI) work together to take the best possible action in such fire-hazardous situations. The aim is for forest and fire services to work together better and for forest fire management and forest fire prevention to be improved.

Not all forests are the same

How a forest fire develops depends heavily on various factors. It depends on the forest structure, what kind of tree species are in the area, how old they are and also how deep the branches are on the trunk. The weather and topography also play a crucial role.

Although pine monocultures have a significantly higher burning potential than near-natural, supposedly more resistant mixed forests, the drought does not spare them either. Forest fires will accompany us in the future and will not remain uncommon, explains project manager Alexander Held. Rather, we should learn to live with it and prepare for it as best we can.

New concept achieves very good results

Compared to other federal states, the concept developed in Baden-Württemberg for better cooperation between the fire brigade and forestry achieves an exceptionally good result that cannot be taken for granted. In the developed and established tandem system, the connection to the respective partner should be improved on different levels.

For example, at district level, the forester and his team of foresters would liaise with the local fire chief and volunteer fire departments. Only when both sides know how the partner works and how they can support each other does it create a good basis for firefighting.

In this cooperation, a joint agreement is reached as to where objects to be protected, such as power lines, are located, and which equipment and organization is required. Since the fire brigade has not yet been adequately equipped for forest fires, it is necessary to discuss exactly what is required. This cooperation should also be carried out in a tandem system at district level up to the forest president and the state fire director.

Spot smoke and fire quickly

In forest fire prevention, it is important to identify potential changes such as sources of fire and the development of smoke as early as possible. Monitoring and early detection systems should help to keep the damage caused by a forest fire as low as possible. Satellite images and drones, but also terrestrial sensors, can be used for this: Sensors attached to trees, for example, could detect smoke and send a warning signal via SMS, explained Lukas Stange from Forst Baden-Württemberg (ForstBW).

Forest fire prevention affects everyone

Forest fires are not among the naturally occurring natural events in Germany’s forests. Loud WWF 96 percent of forest fires are caused by human negligence or deliberate arson. Natural causes such as lightning strikes are much less likely to cause forest fires.

Forest fire prevention, so that Federal Environment Agency, cannot only be achieved through the dedicated work of foresters and firefighters. Their activities can influence the fire conditions through measures such as removing branches close to the ground and removing fuel. But forest fire prevention also means that each individual behaves considerately.