After more than a year of travel restrictions, online meetings and virtual networking, Kathleen Uyttewaal (local social contexts for adaptive fire management) and Judith Kirschner (fire resilient governance) had the opportunity for a field excursion to Tuscany, Italy. During three days, they visited local projects on wildfire preparedness, conducted interviews with stakeholders, and visited La Pineta, Italy’s only training center focused on operational wildfire management, fire analysis and prescribed burning. This connection was made possible thanks to the years of knowledge exchanges and close relationships maintained between the Regione Toscana, the Pau Costa Foundation and, more recently, the PyroLife network.
Forest fire risk in the Tuscan region
In Italy, the competence for forest fire management falls on the regional level as defined by the national framework law 353/2000. Forest fire management involves a wide range of actors: the regional AIB division (Antincendi Boschivi is an agency focused exclusively on forest fire management activities, e.g. fire forecasting, prevention, and suppression), local landowners, communes, municipalities, and volunteers all collaborate with the Civil Protection, the Vigili del Fuoco (fire service), the Carabinieri Forestali (investigation after fire events), the Prefectures and the National Civil Protection Department.
The Tuscan region is marked by the largest wooded area of all regions in Italy, covering about 53% of its territory, with about 30% being the result of secondary succession on abandoned farmland (Agnoletti and Santoro 2018). Forests in Tuscany are mostly broadleaved (about 84%, with Quercus spp, Fagus sylvatica, Castanea sativa, Fraxinus excelsior, Robinia pseudoacacia, Acacia, Arbutus unedo), conifers and mixed stands (8%, Pinus ssp.) (Agnoletti and Santoro 2018), and shrublands (Erica ssp). About 80% of forests are privately owned, with ownership often highly fragmented.
Climate warming, land-use change and land abandonment, a growing interface between urban and uninhabited areas, and a general growth of forested areas pose challenges to managing wildfires. Due to differences in ecosystem, climate, and various other reasons, the Tuscan region does not reach the high fire frequencies and area burned of the Southern Italian parts and the islands (Michetti and Pinar 2019). Most of the more than 400 fire events every year are suppressed early with only 5% of fires exceeding 5 hectares (Tuscany AIB plan 2019-2021), however, 2012, 2017 and 2018 were particularly intense years of wildfire activity. Agencies aim at shifting from emergency-centered reactive suppression towards fire prevention with greater citizen involvement and accountability. With its forest fire training center and 20 additional municipal fire prevention plans, Tuscany is at the forefront of regions in Italy.
Montepisano area: Italy’s first firewise communities and Comunita del Bosco
Located between the cities of Lucca and Pisa in North-central Tuscany, the Monte Pisano area was subject to several forest fires burning about 1400 hectares around the municipalities of Calci, Vecchiano, and Vicopisano in 2018. Acknowledging the high risk of forest fires in the area constituted by the slopes (landscape morphology), fire-prone vegetation, limited evacuation routes, building materials of houses, and continuous usage of fire to burn agricultural remains despite regulations, a number of communities agreed to become firewise communities. Firewise is a programme initiated by NFPA in the US, and provides a framework for local residents to get prepared to stay and defend in the case of wildfires.
Villano is the first firewise community in Italy and the Tuscan region. Zones of high fire risk are identified to target management interventions. In a written agreement, the Comuna di Calci takes responsibility for fire breaks and management of forested areas, while local landowners conduct fuel reduction in the olive orchards surrounding their houses. Similar initiatives take place in Peretto and Via Crucis. All of the initiatives benefit from mixed funding, including the EU rural development fund.
Another initiative relevant for the topic of fire prevention and preparedness is the Comunita del Bosco, a legal entity and collaborative, where residents from several municipalities coordinate and engage to protect the natural resources, interests and livelihoods related to the Monte Pisano area. It is composed of the 5 municipalities surrounding Monte Pisano, and aims to coordinate local landowners and residents to engage in collaborative projects for wider-spread fire prevention activities as most land in Monte Pisano is private.
Our visit consisted of visiting these several budding firewise neighborhoods, observing some of the burned and recovering landscapes, and meeting members of the Comunita del Bosco. Through this, we had the opportunity to interview several local actors involved in these processes including residents, local administrators and forest technicians. What left a lasting impression was the commitment of local residents to take responsibility, get collectively organised, and reduce their individual exposure to fire risk in collaboration with their municipalities. Although their connection to the land may be different compared to previous more agrarian generations, locals still acknowledge their role in shaping a landscape prone to fires and the historical, ecological, and recreational values the land provides for a wider group of beneficiaries.
La Pineta: national excellence in wildfire management, fire analysis and prescribed burning
Day 2 of our field work brought us to La Pineta (Municipality of Monticiano – Siena), Italy’s only regional training center for forest fire operators, fire analysts, ground staff and volunteers. Unlike in all other regions of Italy where forest fire management falls under the civil protection sector, the Tuscan region organizes forest fire management within the forestry sector. The AIB organization in Tuscany builds on a number of principles, such as no profit resulting from prevention and suppression activities.
The center is aptly named, as it sits in the middle of a mainly pine forest. Upon arriving, we were introduced to the many of the center’s state of the art facilities, tools and functions. Our visit also consisted of sitting in on a prescribed burning course given to Swiss firefighters, with academic and practical context provided by Davide Ascoli (fire ecologist at University of Turin) and Luca Tonarelli (director of La Pineta). Weather conditions were fickle, but we were able to observe a small prescribed burn within the surrounding acreage. This was a special moment for us: while we have been directly impacted by wildland fires and have studied them intensively as PhDs for over a year, it was something else entirely to witness such a positive, regenerative force touch the ground. Right after the superficial burn, we noticed the soil was still humid and cool to the touch. For the firefighters from Switzerland, this moment was also a first.
Day 3: Quercianella
On the last day of our visit, we were introduced to another firewise community developing on the coast of Livorno, in a small town called Quercianella. An attractive tourist destination, the area holds many second residences dispersed in the Mediterranean scrub, and it is mainly inhabited from May-October. The area has experienced fire in the past and continues to be at high risk due to vegetation density and the high velocity coastal winds. Local forestry technicians have taken on the painstaking labor to contact homeowners and landowners (which are often not the same person!) to gather support and consent to creating an 80-meter protective fire strip around their properties through mechanical thinning, spanning 26 hectares in total.
An agreement has finally been signed between landowners and the municipality to partake in this endeavor, because a public entity like AIB cannot take on all the responsibility or the associated costs alone. However, we were told that resident concerns continue to mainly revolve around privacy and security- fires are not present on people’s radars. This presents a challenge to establishing a more solid firewise community here, as there are few associations for neighbors or homeowners, who only live (or rent their homes out) in the area part-time, and are more concerned with privacy issues than the hazards of the surrounding abandoned landscape.
Throughout our visit, it was clear how much Regione Toscana was at the forefront of many local initiatives. The many years of cooperation among different sectors and putting forth legislation specific for wildland fire prevention resulted in rich local and regional networks with a high degree of trust placed in the administration.
In the conversations we had, we realized that in addition to structural measures such as cutting fuels and building roads, communication and trust are central elements in fire prevention. When fire risk is a subject in everyday conversations, initiatives, ideas, and knowledge are shared in a local context. Connections between residents and authorities ensure a better response in the immediate situation of a fire.
Finally, we got a peek into the diverse initiatives that can evolve to address forest fire risk. Taking individual responsibility on private lands, self-organizing within several municipalities to decide over land as a cultural asset with fire as one component, regional networks or the targeted training of forest technicians to use fire as a tool under the right circumstances all contribute to managing fire risk under consideration of the local context.
We would like to extend our gratitude to all those who made this learning and exchange experience possible, including Gianluca Calvani, Irene Cacciatore, Francesco Drosera, Lorenzo Nencioni, Luca Tonarelli, Davide Ascoli, Giacomo Pacini, Giacomo Sbaragli, and Annelie Bernhart.
Text: Kathleen Uyttewaal and Judith Kirschner, translation: Annelie Bernhart
Agnoletti, M. and Santoro, A., 2018. Rural landscape planning and forest management in Tuscany (Italy). Forests, 9(8), p.473.
Michetti, M. and Pinar, M., 2019. Forest fires across Italian regions and implications for climate change: a panel data analysis. Environmental and Resource Economics, 72(1), pp.207-246.
Piano AIB 2019-2021: (art.74 L.R. 39/00), Regione Toscana. Proponente Marco Remaschi; Direzione Agricoltura e sviluppo rurale, Settore Forestazione, usi civici, agroambiente; presentazione di Marco Remaschi. Firenze: Regione Toscana, 2019.
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