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    Why should we talk about wildfires in Europe in February?

    From 7 -9 February 2023, 47 participants from 23 organizations followed the invitation by the European Forest Institute, Pau Costa Foundation, the Forest Science and Technology Centre of Catalonia (CTFC), and FOREST EUROPE to attend the joint workshop “Communicating the important role of Sustainable Forest Management to prevent wildfires” in Barcelona, Spain.

    The workshop aimed for a cross-stakeholder dialogue to explore professional communication tools and methods for addressing wildfires. Foresters, wildfire experts, researchers, policymakers, communication experts, media professionals, and journalists have been invited to develop recommendations to effectively and attractively communicate about wildfire prevention and the associated importance of sustainable forest management to different target groups.

    The first day started at the meeting point at the Sant Pau venue in Barcelona where the participants were taken on a field trip through one of the forest areas in the Montserrat mountain, a peri-urban forest area, historically characterized by drastic changes in the population density and its landscape, and the subsequent wildfires that have affected part of its forest cover in the last 30 years. On this tour prepared by CTFC, Pau Costa Foundation, the Provincial Diputation of Barcelona, and hosted by the El Bruc Council. participants were able to discover the plots with fuel treatments carried out on-site by means of strategic forest management, prescribed burns, and extensive livestock farming. These actions are carried out with the aim of better managing the wildland-urban interface and discovering new and innovative measures for wildfire risk disaster reduction. The following local multi-actors attended as speakers during the field trip: El Bruc Council, Montserrat Natural Park, the Catalan Fire and Rescue Service, Catalunya La Pedrera Foundation, and the Association of Forest Owners of Montserrat Surroundings.

    The interactive workshop continued on February 8 at the Sant Pau Art Nouveau Site facilities. CTFC and the Pau Costa Foundation led the first session, “Understanding the wildfire risk management cycle and its communication” and shared various experiences with stakeholders such as the Environmental Awareness project on the ecology of wildfires named MEFITU aimed at primary and secondary school students, the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PECF), and the communication challenges of prevention activities during emergency presented by the Catalan Department of Climate Action, Food and Rural Agenda and the Catalan Fire and Rescue Service. Both the talks and the interactive activity covered topics such as basic pedagogy on forest management concepts for children at the primary school level, differentiated communication strategies between the forest sector and society, and the relationship between journalists and the media with fire response entities.

    One of the main conclusions of this session is that wildfire risk factors are diverse, interdependent, and interconnected. In addition, the final risk assessment is the result of the sum of variables, mainly humans, due to land use decisions and current climatic conditions that facilitate and favor extreme wildfire scenarios.

    The second session dealt with understanding and communicating the importance of wildfire risk prevention building on the role of sustainable forest management and other concepts. On this occasion, FOREST EUROPE presented its work related to the pilot of the pan-European Forest Risk Knowledge Mechanism that seeks to enable knowledge exchange and capacity building onto proven best practices for risk reduction of different hazards for forest areas such as fires but also disturbances, pests, and storms, among others. Furthermore, Professor Johann Goldammer, Chief of the Global Fire Monitoring Center (GFMC), presented on the key role local rural communities play in landscape fire management within Europe. Local fire management committees must be set-up to empower communities and play an active role in managing private and communal lands towards increasing resilience and capabilities for the prevention of and self-defense against wildfires.

    One of the communication tools shown as an example of good practice to inform policymakers is the policy brief. The most recent one, developed by FOREST EUROPE, EFI and Ph.D. Pyrolife students, was presented as an example by Alexander Held, researcher and expert in wildfire management (read here the policy brief “Reducing wildfire risk through Sustainable Forest Management”.)

    On the last day the focus was on the evolvement of effective and innovative communication strategies with stakeholders looking at the case example of the „New fire strategy in Portugal“ presented by Carlos Trindade (Safety and Civil Protection Service of Mafra County). Since the 80s Portugal followed a strict policy of fire and wildfire suppression and total exclusion from landscapes leading to the loss of knowlegde of traditional agricultural practices using fire to shape landscapes and making land arable as well as the acceptance and understanding of fire as an important tool in Portugals society. Starting a vicious cycle of fuel accumulation as source for mega fires that mobilize public opinion calling for government actions that focus rather on fighting the symptoms then the cause. Only after the mega fires in 2017 and the following years the system started to change, learning that total control of wildfires and nature is not possible. Portugal started a new communication strategy, calling for everybody and especially the local, often rural communities to get involved in increasing the resilience and working on sustainable solutions, taking care of the landscape and reducing the vulnerability thereby. The foundation for the new strategy of „living with fire“ and establishing fire smart territories has been set, but it will take time and continued persuasion for a successful implementation and recognition by society.

    The workshop continued with an interactive debate and pitching of ideas created by groups of participants, intentionally mixed between researchers, communication managers, and forest experts to convey the audience of economically viable and sustainable strategies to communicate and promote sustainable forest management activities in different regions of Europe. The aim was to make the attendees understand the challenge of not only the science-media relationship but also the balance between prevention efforts and the human and economic efforts involved in reacting to wildfires in dry and extremely hot weather seasons.

    From FOREST EUROPE we would like to thank all participants, co-organizers, and facilitators of this workshop that left many positive take-home messages, helpful networking, and challenges for the future in which everyone committed from their position as journalists, communication specialists, policymakers, scientists, researchers, foresters, or citizens to spread the word about wildfire risk prevention measures.

    Check out here the take-home messages from the workshop.