Research into Peel fires: more attention needed for wildfires

The large wildfire in the Deurnese Peel (The Netherlands) last spring was exceptional in scope and intensity. The dry vegetation and difficult weather conditions allowed the fire to spread rapidly. In order to prevent uncontrollable fires such as these in the future, more attention, money, and regulations must possibly be directed towards wildfire safety. These are the main conclusions of two studies following the wildfire in Deurnese Peel.

More than 700 hectares of nature reserve were burned during the fire in the Deurnese Peel in April this year. Homes were evacuated and local residents had to deal with the smoke for weeks. In order to reduce the risk of this kind of fire in the future, the municipality of Deurne, the province of Noord-Brabant, and the Safety Region Brabant-Zuidoost have commissioned three studies: into the origin of the fire, the possibilities for prevention, and the relationship between fire safety and nature management. The results of the initial investigation into the origins and development of the fire have already been published. The second and third studies were presented today.

Very difficult conditions

A research team from Wageningen University & Research (WUR) assessed how the layout and management of the Deurnese Peel influenced the development of the fire and its suppression. The fire was able to spread very quickly due to the difficult weather conditions (low humidity and strong dry winds) and the dry vegetation that had not yet recovered from the winter. The fire continued to smoulder underground for a long time, mainly in the higher parts of the peatland. As a result, the fire flared up repeatedly, making smoke an issue in the surroundings for several weeks. Fire suppression was hampered by the speed of the fire, the weather conditions, the low carrying capacity of the peat for large fire service vehicles and the impassability of the terrain with large grass tussocks and small puddles. The limited number of trails in the area proved not to be an obstacle to firefighting. Walking trails were too small for large equipment and the large tracks were not firm enough because of the peat soil.

Rewetting can reduce the risk of fire

WUR’s research shows that two nature restoration projects (Leegveld and Peelkanalen) in the Deurnese Peel are expected to reduce fire risk in the area. These projects include rewetting of the peatland and removal of trees, thereby changing the plant species in the area. This can reduce the wildfire risk in the area. These projects will only be fully effective after a number of years. Until then, researchers note that additional management is needed to reduce the wildfire risk in the area. This might involve controlled burning, mowing, and/or grazing.

Preventing uncontrollable wildfires

In the second investigation, at the request of the Commissioner of the King of Noord-Brabant, an independent research committee looked into the collaboration between the municipality, the safety region, and Staatsbosbeheer in the field of wildfire prevention. The role of the province was also examined. The committee concludes that insufficient attention is paid to fire safety when drawing up plans for nature reserves, including the Deurnese Peel. This applies to both defining nature objectives and the management of these areas. There are also insufficient funds available to take the necessary measures. The committee suggests drawing up binding rules, which can also be enforced, for the design and management of nature reserves in relation to fire safety. Finally, collaboration between the municipality, the safety region, and the manager(s) of natural areas in the prevention of wildfires must be strengthened.

Lessons learned for the Netherlands

The recommendations from both studies also have significance for other nature reserves, both in Noord-Brabant and in the rest of the Netherlands. Climate change will cause the Netherlands to experience wildfires more often. Dr Cathelijne Stoof, principal researcher and assistant professor at WUR, and her team make various recommendations for learning to live with fire. Stoof: “We advise, for example, to strategically manage vegetation and prevent it from piling up and becoming an accelerator of fire over the years, and to use international insights for new knowledge and training in fighting wildfires.” Jan Jaap de Graeff, chair of the independent research committee for study two, emphasises the urgency of tackling this issue. “We can and must be better prepared for wildfires and learn from what happened in the Deurnese Peel,” says De Graeff.

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