Team on Fire: Understanding the Environmental Impact of Wildfires

Team on Fire: Understanding the Environmental Impact of Wildfires

Earlier this year, Litelok was very proud to be a sponsor of Swansea University's Research & innovation awards. We sponsored the Global Reach & Significance Award which was awarded to Team on Fire for their work on the impact wildfires have on the environment. Professor Neil Barron, Founder and CEO of Litelok sat on the judging panel and was beyond impressed with the impact their work has had on a global scale. 

Neil Barron with Team on Fire

Professor Neil Barron (far left) with event host Elin Rhys (far right) and 'Team on Fire' - winners of the Global Reach & Significance Award.

We spoke to leading members of Team on Fire, Professor Stefan Doerr & Associate Professor Cristina Santin Nuno about their work, its impact, and the effect Global Warming is having on our planet. 

What was it that made you want to study wildfires?

Stefan: I personally started studying wildfire when examining the effects of Eucalyptus plantations on soils in Portugal for my PhD (in the 1990s). Some of the plantations had just burned in a wildfire and this had an impact on the soil. Fires are extreme events that dramatically transform landscapes and the finding from this first work in Eucalyptus forests then led me to study fires in Australia and elsewhere around the world.

Cristina: I come from Spain and, in my home region, wildfires are one of the biggest environmental issues. I remember being a 7-year-old kid and being already worried about them! So, it is fantastic to be able to work on a topic so close to my personal experience and, hopefully, contribute to make a difference!

 

With the devastating size of the fires in Australia recently, are we to expect this to become commonplace?

Stefan: Yes – absolutely. Global warming does increase the likelihood and severity of droughts and extreme fire weather (hot, dry windy conditions) in many parts of the world. That does not mean extreme fires every year, but globally we certainly need to get ready for more extreme wildfire events.

Cristina: Also, in addition to increasing likelihood of extreme fires, global warming is bringing fire to places where it used not to happen (at least not frequently), the fires in Greenland in 2017 and then again last summer are an example of that.

Professor Stefan Doerr

Professor Stefan Doerr

 

What negative effects can the aftermath of a wildfire have on the land?

Stefan: We have to remember that many ecosystems (e.g. Australian eucalypt forest, boreal forest, savannas) are fire-adapted and need disturbance by wildfire to maintain ecosystem diversity and health. That said, extreme fire events can have numerous negative impacts in addition to being a threat to humans and some animals. Fires can lead to losses in carbon stored (e.g. peat fires, tropical deforestation fires), soil erosion, landslides, flooding and transfer of pollutants present in ash into rivers and water supply reservoirs. The latter is a major threat currently for Sydney’s water supply.

 

We know that you are collaborating with the Fire Service - can you explain how that has been working and how you balance academic research and real world practicalities?

Cristina: We are very fortunate to be collaborating with the Fire Service. They are providing us with first-hand insights into the wildfire problem and its causes here in the UK, make us aware of recent fires that we may want to study and have facilitated us taking measurements in training and experimental burns they carry out. We in turn provided advice on, for example, how to best tackle the extreme Saddleworth moor peatland fires in 2018 and work closely with them to provide training and scientific data to support their work. One team member, Craig Hope, is a station commander and carries out a Master by Research on wildfires in our team. 

Professor Stefan Doerr and Dr Cristina Santin Nuno

Professor Stefan Doerr and Associate Professor Cristina Santin Nuno - Sydney 2014

 

Can you explain the science and innovation behind what you are doing to tackle the wildfire problem?

Stefan: There are numerous aspects of our work including debunking common myths about wildfire occurrence around the world and also providing practical solutions for mitigating impacts. One current practical example is that we have developed a modelling tool that allows predicting how much ash will be in the landscape after a fire and how it will move under different rainfall scenarios. his can be done largely based on satellite data and rainfall probabilities and is very useful for catchment managers to mitigate the risk of water contamination from ash either before a fire or in its aftermath. This innovative tool has, for example, been applied in collaboration with United Utilities – the UK’s largest water supplier and Water New South Wales, Australia’s largest water supplier. 


What impact has the work of you and your team had on the way authorities handle wildfires?

Cristina: A good example of our research helping handling fires is Craig Hope’s master’s study. He is assessing people’s perceptions in South Wales to fire; how much they like (or dislike) the use of fire as a landscape management tool. This so-called “management fire” can be used, for example, to burnt small strips of grassland to make, quickly and cheaply, fire-breaks to prevent the spread of wildfires. The idea is that if people are okay with it, this information can form a good basis to ask the local and regional authorities to allow the increase of the use of fire as a preventative management tool by the Fire & Rescue Services.

 

What does winning the Global Reach & Significance award mean to you and your team?

Cristina: It is always great to be recognized and to have an excuse to celebrate. I personally really like the way our team works because it is very inclusive and not hierarchical at all. Also, we all love our work, but we also make the most of other aspects of life. So, to me, it is important to show that even in Academia you can be both successful and still have a life.

Stefan: In addition to what Cristina just said, this award has prompted us to apply to form an official cross-disciplinary research centre at University level. So hopefully, with this, the breadth and significance of our research will keep growing and will continue helping society, what is the key role of research after all.

Team on Fire

Team on Fire

Once again we would like to offer huge congratulations to Team on Fire for winning this well-deserved award. Climate change is an issue that is really important to us here at Litelok, and we are proud to be a sponsor of such an important award. We are really excited to see Team on Fire's work continue into the future.