Prevention of forest fires in a changing climatic context in Ticino, southern Switzerland a social and environmental approach

Switzerland is not a place commonly associated with forest fires, unlike many areas of the nearby Mediterranean Basin. However, in this Alpine country, forest fires occur every year and destroy forests that fulfil various functions, the most socially and economically important of which is protection from natural hazards. Canton Ticino is the most affected by forest fires. The protective function is of vital importance for local communities. Most of Ticino's population lives in valley bottoms, where most transportation infrastructures are built, and without forests these are vulnerable to mass flows. In Ticino, forest fires occur mostly during the winter/spring season when dry conditions occur due to low precipitation and strong Foehn events. At this time, deciduous trees have shed their leaves and there is an important seasonal accumulation of dry litter on the forest floor. Fuel load has also increased over recent decades due to the abandonment, since about 1960, of traditional agro-forestry activities that removed dead wood, dry leaves and forage grass from the forest. Fuel in the forest is particularly flammable during the dry winter and leads to very high fire risks. Climate change has contributed to increasingly fire-prone conditions over the past decades and may also have had an effect on forest composition. Most Ticinese forest fires are anthropogenically triggered and negligence is the primary cause of fires. The only natural cause of fire is lightning, which affects forests particularly during summer, when heavy storms occur. This dissertation aimed at gaining a better scientific understanding of the interactions between landscapes, humans and forest fires in the context of climate change, in order to prescribe recommendations to achieve forest fire prevention and diminish fire related risks. We focused on the mechanisms leading to forest fires and adopted an integrated approach, which necessitated the use of a variety of methods: i) climate trend analyses, ii) flammability tests using a standardised ignition apparatus and a thermo-gravimetric analyser, iii) qualitative social science methods using focus groups and semi-structured interview techniques, iv) quantitative social science methods by means of a questionnaire. The results suggest that climate has changed in recent decades with more frequent and intense fire-prone conditions. Minimum and maximum temperatures have both increased significantly and relative humidity has decreased significantly for all daily measures during fire season. The present study suggests that fire-prone conditions are likely to become even more acute. Climate also has an important impact on the composition of the forests and the state of vegetation, as well as the condition of the fuel load. The most flammable species (Castanea sativa and some laurophyllous species) tend to occur near human settlements and this is of importance for management. Some of these species are expected to increase due to climate change. People involved with the forest fire prevention system perceived the actual fire policy as generally well working and well planned, and they perceive preparedness as strong, although discussions showed that the prevention of accidental fires is not addressed by the current fire policy. Effective prevention requires accurate information about the social aspects of forest fires, which until now has not been available in Ticino. Mechanisms leading to fires are not very well understood by locals, although many people identify correctly some technical aspects of forest fires. Depth of understanding is related to geography, gender, age, profession, marital status, income and life-style. Differences between these socio-demographic groups and geographical patterns suggest that prevention needs to be better targeted and that the population cannot be treated as a homogeneous entity. We conclude the dissertation with a series of recommendations for local authorities and people involved in the forest fire policy setting. These recommendations concern climate, vegetation flammability and forest fire prevention in Ticino.

Schlaepfer, Rodolphe
Rebetez, Martine
Lausanne, EPFL

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 Record created 2005-11-28, last modified 2018-03-17

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