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Wildfires: environmental and social entanglements
Wildfires: environmental and social entanglements

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3.4 The 2007 Greek wildfires as entanglement

Pyne’s approach to fire as the entanglement of interrelated physical, ecological, and human processes (as introduced on the previous page) can be specifically used to help understand the 2007 Greek wildfires.

Described image
Figure 11: Burnt out house in Ilia
  • Physical processes

    In 2007, precipitation in Greece lagged behind average. In August, precipitation was almost zero, while maximum temperatures that month surpassed the average for the period between 2000 and 2007 (i.e., over 40°C). A further increase of maximum temperature was observed after the 23rd of August, along with strong winds. These climatic conditions meant that places that were normally wet were dry, creating perfect conditions for wildfires to rush through the landscape and making it extremely difficult for firefighters to combat them (Hovardas, 2015, 411-2)

  • Ecological processes

    The most badly affected type of land during the 2007 Greek wildfires was agricultural land intermixed with natural vegetation, i.e. abandoned fields (Morehouse et al., 2011, 354). Here, the wildfires developed out of the organic debris left over from wild ecologies and farming.

    To a large extent, this was also the result of human processes. Local-scale land use changes associated with rural-to-urban migration have reduced the workforce available to manage high levels of potential fuel build up in agricultural landscapes (Xanthopoulos, 2008). In addition, European Union funding for larger scale commercial olive groves to boost a declining agricultural sector was a contributing factor because under dry conditions such areas of monoculture are prone to spreading fire.

  • Human processes

    There were other human factors and processes that contributed to the 2007 wildfires.

    Firstly, land use and ownership. In Greece, a high proportion of forest lands are nationally owned but lack clear evidence of ownership because historically there has been no systematic Land Registry. Therefore, arson has become a means by which individuals lay claims to property ostensibly under national jurisdiction. This often involves areas located at urban peripheries where demand for land to build on is highest. But it can also occur in scenic areas desired by tourism developers. In any space, such acts of arson can contribute to wildfires.

    Secondly, fire prevention methods. From 1948 to 1998, the Forest Service (part of the Ministry of Agriculture, now Ministry of Environment), was instructed to carry out integrated management of forests and forest fire. However, insufficient funding seriously hampered the agency’s effectiveness (Xanthopoulos, 2008). Then, in 1998 the responsibility for wildfire management was transferred to the Fire Service. This was done without adequate advance preparation. There was an ineffective response to fire danger and insufficient coordination in managing fire events during the wildfires of 2007 (Xanthopoulos, 2008; Morehouse et al., 356-7).

Therefore, the wildfires in Greece during 2007 cannot be understood as simply physical, ecological, or human events. Instead, using the concept of entanglement to approach the 2007 Greek wildfires, encourages an understanding of these events that takes into account both environmental and human processes. It suggests looking at how these processes worked together, rather than looking for simple causes and effects taken from either the environmental or human worlds alone. Though each individual wildfire had a distinctive and specific trigger, it was the web of wider processes, circumstances, and events that was key to making this a major environmental event.

In addition, using the concept of entanglement highlights the nature of fire itself as highly adaptable in ways that can easily escape directed attempts to suppress it. This emphasises how simply changing agricultural practices, creating a better formal land ownership registry, or increasing funding to the Greek Forest Service for clearing and maintaining forested land, would and will not necessarily achieve the aim of protecting landscapes, property, and people from fire. When such directed approaches are taken, fire just keeps coming back somewhere else or in a different form triggered by something else. Therefore, thinking about wildfires as entanglements could be really helpful for informing how forestry, ecology, and environmental resources are managed in the future, so that people can find ways to live and work with and around the propensity for Mediterranean landscapes to be subject to wildfires.

In Activity 4, you will be able to test your understanding of the geographical concept of entanglement and how it can be utilised to understand wildfires and their causes. Then the final section of this course will focus on how using entanglement to understand wildfires can also inform how this environmental challenge is both prepared for, and responded to, in the future.

Activity 4

Timing: 30 minutes

Now you have completed Section 3 of this course (Fire as environment-society entanglement), the following activities will allow you to test your understanding and consolidate your learning.

1. Fill in the missing words from the following description of entanglement.

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The description should read as follows:

In this course, entanglement can be understood as the many ways in which living systems, environmental processes, humans and flora, fauna and other life forms are connected to each other, mixed up, and more or less co-dependent on each other.

This suggests a world of things, relationships and experiences made by the influences, exchanges and inter-dependencies between environmental processes, humans and non-humans.

Such chains of relation, mixing and co-dependence are sometimes obvious and clear, but are often complex and difficult to trace.

Framed this way entanglement can be understood as the mixing and entwining of environments, humans, physical matter and other life forms, influencing how things connect and interact, whilst also shaping each as individuals or entities and the world in which they exist.

2. In your own words, describe Pyne’s three interrelated processes of fire.

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Your answer may have included some of the following points:

  1. Physical processes
    • Fire is a chemical reaction that is informed by specific environmental conditions.
    • Abundant fuel material and hot, dry weather make wildfires more likely
    • Climate change is making an important contribution to the increase in wildfires
  2. Ecological processes
    • The living world provides the fuel for fire’s chemical processes
    • Fire adapts to different ecological circumstances
    • Disrupted ecosystems, neglected forests, abandoned fields, invasive highly combustible plants, and the collapse of internal checks-and-balances within ecosystems all contribute to the environmental challenge of wildfires
  3. Human processes
    • Humans influence and (to some extent) control where fires happen and what type of fuel is chosen to be burned
    • Factors that may initially seem unrelated to fire can have profound effects on the nature, location, and extent of fire
    • This could include decisions about land use, institutional behaviours, political policies, and social changes and their impact on individuals’ and communities’ perceptions and motivations