Are forest fires inevitable? – The “Serra’s Model”

Every summer, forest fires ravage lands across the whole of Europe, attracting, for a short time, the attention of media. However the situation is quite alarming and deserves more constant attention: Each year , over 60.000 forest fires broke in Europe. Worldwide, 350 million hectares are affected which represents a surface equal to 40% of the European territory. In thirty years, the burned areas have doubled, releasing massive quantities of CO2 in the atmosphere.

However, forests fires are not inevitable! Municipalities across Europe are acting to develop innovative solutions to prevent them. Developing bioenergy projects are currently among the most interesting options as is the case in Serra (Valencia, Spain) where a life-size test is conducted under the leadership of Juan José Mayans, municipal engineer, and the communal authority. The summer break was a good opportunity to interview M. Mayans about the latest development of the project:

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Could you provide us with some main facts and figures regarding Serra’s bioenergy project?

Serra is a small mountain town in the province of Valencia on the Spanish Mediterranean coast, its territory covers an area of 5.730 hectares, with 95% of which is within the Sierra Calderona Natural Park and 85% is forest. Our bioenergy project’s basic idea was to reduce the expense of managing green waste through converting that waste from gardening, agricultural and especially fire prevention forestry works into a fuel suitable for local uses.

A first step was to turn public buildings into biomass fuel consuming installation by replacing the traditional heat sources with modern boilers, then we created and improved a process to convert our green waste into a solid fuel from which energy can be derived: wood pellets.

After four years of full operation, the results are very positive:

  • Average savings per year in green waste management: 25.000 €.
  • Average savings per year in electrical power: 16.000 €.
  • Total economic savings for the municipality (4 year operating): 164.000
  • Total biomass boilers power: 100 kw (250 kw in winter 2016-2017)
  • Tonnes of wood pellets produced/consumed (per year): 50 tonnes.
  • Total CO2 emission reduction for the non use of electrical power: 100.000 kg.
  • Hectares protected by fire prevention forestry works: 130 ha.
  • Employment created in wood pellet production plant: 2 people.
  • Employment created by fire prevention forestry works: 6 people.

We can proudly say yet that our bioenergy project not only allows economic savings for the municipality, but also has positive collateral effects in terms of protecting the natural environment, reducing pollution and creating employment in a region hit by unemployment and rural abandonment.

What is the general situation in Spain/Valencia regarding forest fires ? How important was the fight against forest fire when you decided to develop a bioenergy project for the municipality?

Statistical data from 1955 indicate that fire was part of Spanish forests history. The affected surface analysis revealed an increasing trend until middle of the 90‘s, and then a remarkable decline, due not to the decrease in the number of fires, but to the implementation and constant growth of forest fire extinction devices and the increase of their efficiency. In 2015, 11.928 fires were recorded throughout the whole country, 103.200 hectares were burned among which 33.500 hectares corresponded to tree-covered surface.

At the start of this summer two large forest fires have already taken place in the provinces of Valencia and Castellón, burning more than 3.000 hectares. The situation of Valencian forests is very dangerous due to the excess of biomass and the current drought that the region is suffering from. Serra is located in the Sierra Calderona natural park, which is characterised by a dry climate. This, with the decay of traditional forestry, has led to an excessive and disordered growth of vegetation. The last great forest fire was in the municipality of Serra in 2004 and affected more than 400 hectares of our forest.

Due to its location in the heart of the Sierra Calderona, the municipality of Serra has natural resources that, together with its location close to the provincial capital, grant it a privileged position from which to boost agricultural and forestry activities in line with others related to tourism and recreation, all of these being sustainable and complementary to a new model of socio-economic development.

Forest fires in Serra are more than an ecological disasters, they negatively affect the economy and survival of the population, the disappearance of natural heritage, render difficult agricultural and forest activities, and other activities related to tourism, sport and recreation. We can say that forest fires really “burn the future” of Serra’s population.

All this means that one of the main objects of Serra’s bioenergy project was to protect the natural heritage through making fire prevention and forestry work economically profitable. What we pretend is that a part of the cost of those fire prevention works could be reimbursed with the sale of wood pellet production. By now it seems like that as we have protected 130 hectares and we hope to reach the protection of 500 hectares at the end of 2020!

How bioenergy could contribute to the reduction of forest fire in general ? Do you have concrete examples from your daily experience in Serra ?

Currently the first forestry works to be made in the Spanish mountains and especially in the Mediterranean region are the reduction of forest surface extension into a smaller units to reduce the hectares burned in case of fire. For this, extraction of biomass is made on the margins of forest roads, which normally has a high cost because of the work’s technical conditions such as topography, distance and transport. Works may cost more than €10.000 per hectare. If green waste generated as a consequence of fire prevention, the related fuel creation can generate an economic cycle that, in part, could contribute to decreasing the high cost of forestry works.

On the other hand, it should be noted that 78% of fires have causes directly related to humans, a large part of that percentage is due to agricultural burnings, which is deeply rooted in the Mediterranean region. That’s why in Serra, 2 years ago, agricultural fires were replaced by green waste chipping and energy use. There is a municipal service of shredding that offers farmers the possibility of disposing of their waste without having to use the dangerous practice of burning.

In Serra, during last winter we conducted fire prevention work that allowed the protection of 130 hectares of forest and also have generated a good quality wood chip that constitutes the base of our pellet production.

Economic savings and project success  made possible that the municipal government invested in an industrial pellet production line. In this first year of industrial process we hope to produce 600 tonnes of pellets of high quality of which 200 tonnes will go to our biomass boilers, 100 tonnes will be available for the neighbours of Serra at a low price and the remaining pellets will go to the local market, encouraging people that the use of this renewable energy helps to protect their nearby mountain where they carried out tourism, sports and recreational activities.

After some first years of operation, are you observing first tangible results on the reduction of forest fires and on the environment more broadly (ex. expected CO2 reduction) ? 

Forest fires spread by three main factors, wind force and direction, topography and the density of biomass, of these three factors humans can only act in the last one. By now it is too soon to estimate the direct effect of the project in the reduction of fire risk in Serra’s mountains, what is obvious is that reducing the extension of forest surfaces, by creating sectors, and generating discontinuities in its biomass contributes directly to reducing the hectares affected in case of fire and facilitates the extinction efforts.

On the other hand we should recognise that the non-use of electricity power for heating in municipal buildings reduces the emission of greenhouse gases, in the last four winters we have been able to quantify a reduction in 100.000 kg of CO2 emissions, which we hope to increase this winter with the start up of a new biomass boiler at a public school with a power of 150 kw.

Do you consider that your example is easily replicable in other municipalities suffering from the same summertime concerns?

Serra’s project is perfectly replicable in other municipalities and regions with similar conditions and characteristics, the generation of a circular economy based on the energy use of green waste coming from forestry and agriculture is an opportunity for economic development of regions hit by economic regression and rural abandonment. Our model has been adopted as an example by the Valencian government authorities; they even use a name to describe it “Model Serra”.

It is also necessary to start up policies to promote the use of renewable energy in the primary, industrial and tertiary sector in the Valencian Community, especially from the use of solid fuels coming from fire prevention forestry works in Valencian mountains and natural protected areas in the Mediterranean region.

The problem of forest fires is largely a consequence of the interaction of human beings with forests, the energetic use of green waste generated in fire prevention forestry works can contribute to make forests more resilient to the phenomenon of forest fires, this has to be accompanied by other measures such as environmental education and the eradication of the use of fire as agricultural activity. Even so, the fire will always pose a risk for forests in these dry areas.

The sustainable and rational utilisation of forest biomass is the only factor of fire spreading on which we can intervene. It is our duty to do so, not only to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels but to preserve natural areas for future generations.

Interview conducted with Juan José Mayans by Jean-Baptiste boucher

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