Landscape Fires and Drivers in a Restoration Context

Posted: 4th March 2024

Photo: Khrystsina Luzai

A study funded by the Endangered Landscapes & Seascapes Programme has found that over 20% of some of Europe’s most valuable and protected natural habitats burnt from 2001-2019. These protected areas are in Polesia, a region containing some of Europe’s last pristine peatlands and lowland forests in Eastern Europe.

Although Polesia’s peatlands are in relatively good condition compared to those found in the rest of Europe. They have been impacted by drainage and changes in hydrology as natural habitat has been converted to agriculture and rivers rerouted. A key finding of this study was that peatlands, meadows, and deciduous forests were likely to burn when moisture conditions in the soil and litter were low, but very unlikely to burn under high moisture conditions. This indicates that the peatland restoration being undertaken in the ELSP Polesia project to restore peatland biodiversity and carbon storage potential can also prevent large and damaging wildfires.

The threat of landscape fires to human health and well-being, the environment, and the economy is attracting increasing public attention worldwide. Large and devastating fires in North America and the Mediterranean have been widely reported on in the media. This is coupled with our growing concern about the warming climate, and its interaction with fire.

Wildfire front in Polesia.

There are important and nuanced links between landscape fires and ecological restoration. Fire plays an important ecological role in many landscapes, providing natural disturbance and promoting regeneration of plants. However, fire regimes around the world have been altered by people, suppressing fires in some areas where they naturally occur, and increasing the frequency and intensity of fire regimes in other areas. This can have detrimental effects on the ecology of a landscape and for people.

BTO scientists mapped large fires that occurred over a 19-year period in Polesia, a region containing some of Europe’s last pristine peatlands and lowland forests in Eastern Europe. Fires are of great concern to policymakers in the region due to the economic and health costs, and a lot of resources are used to suppress fires during hot and dry years. There are potentially natural solutions to fires, however, that could also benefit biodiversity and climate issues. These ‘nature-based’ solutions include restoring drained wetlands. Freely-available satellite data were used to explore the prevalence of large fires and the factors causing them allowing researchers to explore whether restoring the landscape’s wetlands could reduce the increasing risk of large, damaging fires as the climate changes.

The results identified five fires reaching more than 100 km2, a threshold often used to classify ‘megafires’. Frequent spring and summer fires predominantly started in agricultural areas, where farmers burn the land to clear it, both before planting and following the harvest. However, these fires often spread into neighbouring protected peatlands and floodplain meadows, endangering threatened wildlife, such as the Greater Spotted Eagle and Aquatic Warbler, and damaging a globally important carbon sink. The largest fires burned in native deciduous forests, threatening protected old-growth oak and beech forests, which are more vulnerable and less likely to recover than more fire-adapted trees. Overall, more than 20% of protected land burned with one fire reaching 97 km2 in size and burning significant areas of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, where radioactive contamination from the Chernobyl 1986 disaster is highest. It is also an area where the impacts of large fires on human health may be particularly severe.

Restoring wetlands can be an effective way to reduce fire risk in a landscape. Photo: Khrystsina Luzai.

The results of this work suggest that landscape restoration in Polesia’s wetlands would help to limit the spread and intensity of unnaturally large, damaging fires, while reinstating natural, periodic low-intensity fires, providing ecosystem benefits and supporting long-term carbon storage. Throughout Europe, including in Polesia, years of drainage for agriculture and commercial forestry has created drier landscapes that are more susceptible to fires. The work showed that open peatlands, meadows, and deciduous forests were between three and ten times more likely to burn than under low or average moisture conditions.

Preserving and restoring large, intact, well-hydrated peatlands would help to create natural barriers to large, severe fires, while reinstating periodic low-intensity fires. Doing so would provide ecosystem and conservation benefits, support long-term carbon storage and help tackle climate change, and protect human lives.

Find the full study on our resources page. For more information about the project, visit the project page

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