Forgetting fire: Traditional fire knowledge in two chestnut forest ecosystems of the Iberian Peninsula and its implications for European fire management policy

Seijo, F., et al., 2015. Land Use Policy

Original research (primary data)
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Human beings have used fire as an ecosystem management tool for thousands of years. In the context of the scientific and policy debate surrounding potential climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies, the importance of the impact of relatively recent state fire-exclusion policies on fire regimes has been debated. To provide empirical evidence to this ongoing debate we examine the impacts of state fire-exclusion policies in the chestnut forest ecosystems of two geographically neighbouring municipalities in central Spain, Casillas and Rozas de Puerto Real. Extending the concept of ‘Traditional Ecological Knowledge’ to include the use of fire as a management tool as ‘Traditional Fire Knowledge’ (TFK), we take a mixed-methods and interdisciplinary approach to argue that currently observed differences between the municipalities are useful for considering the characteristics of “pre-industrial anthropogenic fire regimes” and their impact on chestnut forest ecosystems. We do this by examining how responses from interviews and questionnaire surveys of local inhabitants about TFK in the past and present correspond to the current biophysical landscape state and recent fire activity (based on data from dendrochronological analysis, aerial photography and official fire statistics). We then discuss the broader implications of TFK decline for future fire management policies across Europe particularly in light of the published results of the EU sponsored Fire Paradox research project. In locations where TFK-based “pre-industrial anthropogenic fire regimes” still exist, ecosystem management strategies for adaptation and mitigation to climate change could be conceivably implemented at a minimal economic and political cost to the state by local communities that have both the TFK and the adequate social, economic and cultural incentives to use it.

Case studies

Basic information

  • Case ID: INT-083-1
  • Intervention type: Management
  • Intervention description:

    Traditional Fire Knowledge (TFK) practices - fire-related knowledge, beliefs, and practices that have been developed and applied on specific landscapes for specific purposes by long time inhabitants Communities in this region have managed their chestnut forests with asophisticated ecosystem management toolkit that exemplifies TEKand TFK. Through time these communities actively participated inthe design of their chestnut forest ecosystems through terracing,grafting, pruning, careful tree species selection and burning in whatcan be most aptly described as a pre-industrial effort at large-scaleenvironmental engineering (Martin et al., 2010).

  • Landscape/sea scape ecosystem management: Yes
  • Climate change impacts Effect of Nbs on CCI Effect measures
    Wildfire  Unclear results for the comparison between the two locations (and deducing fire suppression vs TFK effectiveness) Comparing fire regimes between Casillas and rosas over time % of crown, surface, intensity of fire, frequency of fire, median burned areas, and seasonality of fires, as well as origin of fire (Natural vs anthropogenic) Perceptions (by respondents) of changing fire regimes (e.g. intensity, size) in both location over time.
  • Approach implemented in the field: Yes
  • Specific location:

    municipalities of Casillas and Rozas de Puerto Real in the foothills of the mountains of Gredos, central Spain

  • Country: Spain
  • Habitat/Biome type: Mediterranean shrubs and Forests |
  • Issue specific term: Not applicable


  • Notes on intervention effectivness: Intervention effectiveness here is gauged by comparing the two sites, one where fire suppression predominates TFK, and another where TFK is more prevalent. Then through interviews with respondents on past fire history and how it compares with present-day in both areas. So the comparator is not a proper counterfactual and therefore we cannot assess effectiveness, as we define it. Essentially it compares the two adaptation actions (TFK vs fire suppression). In comparison w/ fire suppression govt policy the site with TFK shows better outcomes to mitigate fire risk – “In other words, more frequent, traditional seasonal burning in Casillas produces less burnt annual forest surface overall than in Rozas. This difference may be an indirect consequence of both the fuel structure of chestnut grove forest stands resulting from frequent TFK-based burning (open with larger, older trees; Fig. 2) and the fire season preferred by TFK practitioners (unintended fire escapes are likely to be less common if burning takes place during the less dry and hot Spring, Autumn and Winter months; Fig. 9, Table 6). In addition, Casillas, in spite of having a smaller fire return interval than Rozas, has not experienced any large fires during the 1984–2009 period while in Rozas a “large fire” event took place in 1985.”
  • Is the assessment original?: Yes
  • Broadtype of intervention considered: Other non-NbS approach(s)
  • Compare effectivness?: Yes
  • Compared to the non-NBS approach: More effective
  • Report greenhouse gas mitigation?: No
  • Impacts on GHG: Not applicable
  • Assess outcomes of the intervention on natural ecosystems: No
  • Impacts for the ecosystem: Not reported
  • Ecosystem measures:
  • Assess outcomes of the intervention on people: No
  • Impacts for people: Not reported
  • People measures:
  • Considers economic costs: No
  • Economic appraisal conducted: No
  • Economic appraisal described:
  • Economic costs of alternative considered: No
  • Compared to an alternative: Not reported

Evaluation methodology

  • Type of data: Mixed qualitative/quantitative
  • Is it experimental: No
  • Experimental evalution done: Not applicable
  • Non-experimental evalution done: Empirical case study
  • Study is systematic: