The provisional balance of a forest fire in the summer of 2022 does not sound reassuring: by mid-August, nearly 4,300 hectares of forest burned down in Germany, according to the German Fire Brigade Association and the Working Group of German Forest Owners’ Associations. This is more than five times the annual average since 1991.
Experts fear that there will be more such records in the future. “We are dealing with the age of fire,” says Johann Georg Goldammer. “We have to prepare better for this.” But how? Goldammer heads the Global Fire Monitoring Center (GFMC), a division of the Max Planck Institute of Chemistry at the University of Friborg.
With fire against fire
Local experts advise governments and communities, train firefighters and forest workers. And they test new and old ideas: How can the risk of major fires in forests be reduced? What to do if there is a fire anyway?
The team from Freiburg has been training fire management specialists since 2000. The curriculum also includes a procedure that is surprising to lay people: you send a controlled fire towards a large fire.
“When the main and return fire come closer together, there is a choke, so they attract each other,” explains Goldammer. They eventually merge into one fire. But it breaks down quickly because it can’t find any more food.
Since the main and return fire came from two directions, they used up all the fuel on the way. United fire can neither move forward nor regress. “Especially in regions where there is little water, it is a very effective method of extinguishing fires,” says the expert.
Doesn’t work without water
The most important weapon in fighting fires is still water. But how does it get to the scene of the fire? So far, there are only a few fire trucks in Germany that can operate on rough terrain. On the other hand, agriculture and forestry use a large number of such vehicles. Can it be quickly converted to an emergency firefighting purpose?
The team from Freiburg has been working on this idea since 2020 together with the specialist company Welte based in Umkirch in the Breisgau-Hochschwarzwald district. The “tank backpack” developed in this way was last tested a few weeks ago.
The backpack consists of a large box with a water tank with a capacity of 300 to 1600 liters and a foam extinguishing agent tank. The backpack can be attached to forest machines, tractors and other off-road vehicles.
But even they don’t reach everywhere. Off-road mobility is often lacking, but safety is lacking. Because, especially in Brandenburg, Saxony-Anhalt and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, fires break out again and again in former military training grounds or in the fighting zones of World War II.
Dangerous firefighting work
There is still a lot of ammunition that could explode in a fire. For safety reasons, the fire brigade must therefore maintain a distance of 1000 meters from such areas. However, from this distance, extinguishing is impossible.
Experts from the GFMC also addressed this problem. At the former Jüterbog-Ost training ground in Brandenburg, they tested old Russian tanks that were converted by a specialist fire company.
In collaboration with DiBuKa (fire and civil protection service) in Saxony-Anhalt, the “SPOT 55” extinguishing tank was developed, with several fire guns to protect the personnel inside from heat, explosions and radioactivity.
Meanwhile, DiBuKa has more armored helpers. For example, at the end of July, the Marder infantry fighting vehicle, converted into a fire engine, was used in a forest fire near Torgau in Saxony.
However, technical advances in recent years have also made it easier to fight fires in unarmed areas. “For example, drones can provide very important information,” says Goldammer. “Especially in unclear terrain.”
Like flying eyes, small devices use infrared sensors to find out where typical fire temperatures are. “Not all fire brigades are equipped with such drones,” says a Freiburg expert.
For him, successfully extinguishing fires in the countryside is not only a question of technology, but also of cooperation. He believes that the idea that the fire department is responsible for the fires and that no one else is relevant anymore. “Fire knows no boundaries between types of vegetation, landowners or responsibilities,” emphasizes the scientist.
He and his team try how it can work in the “Freiburg model”: In recent years, close cooperation has been established between GFMC, the Freiburg fire department, Freiburger Verkehrs AG and the Freiburg Forest Authority. The aim is to plan and practice together in an emergency. This resulted in a forest fire map in the Schauinsland pattern district which contains important information about the site, in particular the endangered locations and possible access roads.
Forestry in service
The forester and his foresters also have hand tools and fire fighting training. In this way, they can stop the fire until the arrival of the fire brigade led by foresters who know the area. “This collaboration has already proved successful in several fires,” says Goldammer. “Also this year.”
However, forestry involvement is required not only for firefighting but also for prevention. You must try to make your areas less vulnerable to fire. “You can certainly learn a lot from old forest textbooks” – says the scientist. For example, creating passages where fire finds as little fuel as possible.
Such traditional methods are out of fashion, but are now gaining new attention. “But you have to remember that these processes were designed for our ancient climate,” says Goldammer. We will see if and in what form they will continue to be helpful in the climate of the future.
Fire protection is more important than biodiversity
However, he also sees another problem: “If the risk of forest fires is reduced, it is at the expense of biodiversity” – noted the researcher. After all, dead wood is not only potential fuel, but also food and habitat for animals.
Removing it completely from ecosystems is therefore not an option. However, in strategically selected areas, fire protection must take priority to protect the rest of the forest. Before the flames in the Age of Fire.