Fighting fires with fires – and pasture

When talking about fires we typically imagine a terrifying and catastrophic event. But the use of controlled fires is once again becoming common practice in Europe: together with livestock grazing, it is looking like an essential and economical technique that can prevent genuinely catastrophic fires.

Published On: December 19th, 2023

INFOCA workers burn an area of mountain in Dalías, Almeria. Controlled fires are mainly carried out in winter, and after a careful study of the conditions of the area and the local ecosystem. Photo by Iván Gómez - Diario de Almería

In early December, in the hills of Dalías, near Almeria, a group of thirty firefighters from INFOCA, the firefighting service of the region of Andalusia, were torching an area of brushwood within a 40-hectare plot. Supervising them were researchers as well as other firefighters with experience in controlled fires. This was of course no pyromaniac spree, but rather a well-planned test of “pyric herbivorism”, part of the COMPAS programme carried out by research centres in the three Spanish regions of Andalusia, Galicia and Navarra. The effects of controlled fires are being studied in these regions, which have a particularly dry climate and are prone to desertification and wildfires. In climate terms, they are representative of many other places in the Mediterranean basin and beyond.


The burnt soil of Dalías is being studied by researchers at the Zaidín Experimental Station in Granada, a partner in the COMPAS project. A few months from now, after the soil sprouts again in spring, it will be grazed by a local farmer. Photo by Mauro Tognetti Barbieri - SERPAM

The use of fire to remove tinder – i.e., dry wild vegetation that has accumulated over time – is nothing new. In the past it was common practice to burn vegetation in order to reduce the potential for larger, uncontrolled fires.

Fire has always been used as a tool to “tame” natural landscapes and to fertilise soil. The ancient Romans “cleaned” forests in a process they called lucus, a word that has the same root as “light” and “shine” in modern Italian (luce and lucentezza). In Australia, a country that saw 25 million hectares of land burn in 2020 – the equivalent of the entire Italian peninsula – the Aboriginals once used fire as a means of domesticating the landscape. Their techniques are described in a book published in 2020 by author Victor Steffensen, who proposed to revive this approach.

Until the mid-20th century, in southern Europe, the mountainous landscape was a mosaic of traditional farmland mixed with forest and villages. Fire was widely used to reshape the landscape and there was widespread knowledge of this practice. With the rural exodus of recent decades, the landscape is becoming more homogenous and thus vulnerable to large fires, while the use of fire as a tool is gradually disappearing.


Fire is still used to clear wheat and legumes at the end of summer. It removes residues from the previous plantation and turns them into natural fertiliser. In some areas, this technique is still employed, as in the Piana di Catania. Photo by Davide Mancini

The aim of projects such as COMPAS is to reintroduce the use of fire and grazing in a combined form, a technique known as “pyric herbivory”. Justo Porfirio Arroyo, a technician from the fire service INFOCA and a member of REPCA (Red de Áreas Pasto-Cortafuegos de Andalucía) and the association Shepherds for the Mediterranean Mountain, is in charge of identifying the areas where fire may be used, and for contacting shepherds there. “First an area is identified where there is grazing land and where there is a high risk of fire”, he explaines. “Then the burning of a specific area is planned by a specialised team, so as to remove brushwood and low vegetation. After a few months, grazing is carried out on the plot. Goats and sheep are typically used, as they prefer the new shoots that emerge after the fire, which are more tender than wild plants that have grown and withered over time”.

Ana Belen Robles is a partner in the COMPAS project, based at the Zaidín Experimental Station in Granada. “Although it is surprising, floral biodiversity increases after burning and grazing”, she says. “And now we are seeing that insect biodiversity also improves. Controlled fires do not reach high temperatures, so the soil doesn’t get too hot, as it does with larger fires, and therefore the soil fertility cycle is faster. […] The problem today is finding shepherds. There are very few left. It is important to comprehend that extensive grazing does not only result in ‘meat and milk’ for consumption. It is much more. it provides an ecosystem service to the landscape.”

In the past, it was the shepherds themselves who used fire to clear the mountains. This practice has been abandoned, partly due to stricter fire laws. Robles explains: “Today, the amount of organic fuel is much higher than in the past. After decades of neglect, the shepherds no longer trust themselves to use fire, for fear that it might get out of hand.”

For this reason, the COMPAS project envisages education so as to create a new professional role, that of the ‘fuel manager’, i.e., people skilled in reducing the accumulation of forest mass, the stuff that makes forests dense and impenetrable. This fuel is easily ignited during the driest and most arid months. Combined with the effects of climate change, the ideal conditions are thus created for large, uncontrollable and destructive fires. “After understanding which regional laws currently limit the practice, we need to promote the use of these controlled fires combined with extensive grazing”, adds Robles.

In Spain, around 60 percent of forests are privately owned, and it is not always easy to convince the owners of this high-risk fire-land that controlled fires can be a form of prevention. It is crucial to raise awareness about the fact that fire can be an ally in adapting to climate change, rather than something that has to be suppressed in any form.

The use of extensive grazing is a technique that has been used for years by authorities such as INFOCA, but it is not the only one. The removal of brushwood tinder can also be done with heavy machinery or manually by skilled labourers. “But some areas are very difficult to access with machines or lighter tools, whereas animals such as goats and sheep can get there without problems”, says Justo Porfirio Arroyo. “A mechanical intervention costs about €900-1000 per hectare, which can go up to €2,500 if the vegetation is dense. With grazing, maintenance costs an average of €60 per hectare”. The shepherds also receive a subsidy from INFOCA based on various factors, such as the slope of the land and the type of vegetation. This way, they create “firebreak” areas with less accumulated fuel.


Average cost of tinder management to prevent fires. Data from INFOCA, the forest fire-fighting service of Andalusia, shows that the use of grazing (green) is much cheaper than the use of machinery (purple) and manual cleaning (blue) done by their workers. The horizontal axis shows the average cost in euros per hectare "cleaned" by natural fuel.

The use of controlled fire seems to be an increasingly necessary solution for southern Europe and beyond, and is also endorsed by the European Environment Agency as a form of climate-change mitigation. As a synergy between the skills of firefighters, forest managers, shepherds and outside experts, this technique could be the key to preventing the mega-fires of the future.

logo FIRE-RESThis material is published in the context of the "FIRE-RES" project co-funded by the European Union (EU). The EU is in no way responsible for the information or views expressed within the framework of the project. Responsibility for the content lies solely with EDJNet. Go to the FIRE-RES page

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