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On the prevalence of forest fires in Spain

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We study the prevalence of forest fires in Spain in the long run by computing the probability that a forest tree, as opposed to shrub or bush, will be lost to fire over the course of the year. Climate change is first shown to increase the likelihood of this event. Next, we document how risk grew dramatically from 1961 up to the democratic era (c. 1980) and has since receded to less than 2 trees lost per thousand. We bring together the socioeconomic drivers identified for this trend reversal. Our finding is commensurate with the evolution of the same risk in neighboring Mediterranean countries.

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  1. In ancient days, a monkey could have left Rome and skipped from tree to tree till it reached Spain, without ever touching earth.

  2. Vadell et al. (2016) identify a low ebb by the mid-19th century at about one half the 1961 level; forest restoration has thus a long history in this country.

  3. Per our econometric estimation of these publicly available data.

  4. These were not reported separately before 1989.

  5. The United Nations specialized agency UNISDR (2017) does not distinguish anymore between natural and technological disasters; CRED (2021) thus freely speaks of “a year of record-breaking storms and wildfires.”

  6. As may be observed on the right panel of Fig. 1, forest fires are not homogeneously distributed being much more frequent in the northwest.

  7. Beware that the literature often refers to absolute burned woodlands whose historical maximum arose in 1985.

  8. Note that “forest cover” estimates are more spaced in time (wrt. Spain) and more importantly, we only have one 2009 estimate of the share of Mediterranean region with respect to the entire French continental forest (\(22\%\)).

  9. The detailed study of Colantoni et al. (2020) concludes that nomadic livestock stimulates grazing and prevents fuel accumulation at the WUI.

  10. The Portuguese constitution of 1976 also included environment protection whereas France waited until 2005.

  11. It is noteworthy that no new legislation has been passed since 2014 although left and right have altered one more time in power. The current mood is for all parties to react swiftly to the news of forest fires, even the far-right populists in their defense of rural sovereignty and dignity.

  12. Annual official reports offer incomplete information on resources and budget dedicated to fire fighting; we may only point to a relative constancy (in real terms) at about 500\( \in \) per burned hectare.

  13. The importance of managing properly the WUI is demonstrated by Modugno et al. (2016).

  14. This crime includes, by decreasing frequency, non-authorized slash-and-burn, pyromania and vengeance.


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This work is supported by Generalitat de Catalunya (AGAUR-SGR-1360) and Ministerio de Ciencia, Innovación y Universidades (PID2019-106642GB-I00).


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Correspondence to Nicolas Boccard.

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Since the wildfire risk ratio \( \rho _{t} = \frac{B_{t}}{C_{t}}\) involves the burnt forest \(B_{t}\) and the forest cover \(C_{t}\), both measured in hectares (Ha), Figure 5 displays their separate evolution, contrasting the slow reforestation effort after the country’s democratization and the highly variable impact series. Figure 6 recalls that beyond the expected seasonal variations, climatic variables temperature and rainfall, obey long-term climate influence over decadal cycles, giving yearly means a random walk allure.

Fig. 5
figure 5

The contrasting evolution of forest cover and burnt area. MHA: millions of hectares, kHA: thousands of hectares (log-scale)

Fig. 6
figure 6

The random walk allure of climatic variables

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Boccard, N. On the prevalence of forest fires in Spain. Nat Hazards 114, 1043–1057 (2022).

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