Every year, over 60,000 forest fires break out all across Europe. Globally, forest fires affect close to 350 million hectares, equivalent to 40% of the European territory. In the past thirty years due to warmer summers, the total surface area burned has doubled, increasing the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere. But are forest fires simply an inevitable force of nature?

Although occurring naturally, forests fires can be avoided if sound measures to prevent them are applied. In fact, municipalities all across Europe are developing innovative solutions to prevent forest fires and their resulting environmental and economic damage. Developing bioenergy projects is one of the most interesting options available, which is the very approach taken by the small mountain town of Serra in Valencia, near Spain’s Mediterranean coast.

In 2015, 11,928 fires were recorded throughout Spain, with 33,500 of the 103,200 hectares affected tree-covered. Forest fires are spread by factors including wind force, direction, topography, and the density of biomass in the forest. This last factor is the only one that humans can play an intervening role in through the sustainable use of biomass and fire-preventative forestry, making forests more resilient to fire.

Due to Serra’s excess of biomass and dry climate, the decline of traditional forestry practices has led to an excessive growth of vegetation, with the last great forest fire in 2004 affecting over 400 hectares. As 85% of Serra’s 5,730 hectares is forested, a bioenergy project, led under municipal engineer and communal authority Juan José Mayans, sought to convert green waste from gardening, agriculture, and fire-preventative forestry into a fuel suitable for local use.

To make the project feasible, public buildings first needed to be upgraded to utilise biomass by replacing traditional heating systems with modern pellet boilers. The green waste is then collected and processed into pellets, the solid fuel used by the installations. Fire-preventative forestry involves reducing the overall hectares of forest surface to lessen the damage in the case of fire, which is done by removing the biomass along roadsides, which can cost up to €10,000 per hectare.

As 78% of fires are directly caused by humans due to activities such as agricultural burning, Serra also replaced this culturally-rooted practice with green waste chipping, offering municipal services to farmers to dispose of their waste to prevent dangerous agricultural burnings from starting more fires.

Last winter, Serra’s work protected 130 hectares of forest while supplying a quality wood chip for their pellet production. Furthermore, the municipal government has invested in an industrial pellet production line and hopes to produce 600 tonnes of high quality pellets–200 tonnes to be used in local biomass boilers, and 100 tonnes that will be available for residents of Serra at low prices. The remainder will go to the local market, contributing to an economic cycle that decreases the high cost of forestry works.

The switch to biomass has not only drastically cut utility costs for the municipality, but also protects the environment, reduces pollution, and stimulates the economy by creating rural employment. In the past four winters, Serra has been able to already reduce CO2 emissions by 100,000 kg and has been able to protect 130 hectares last year alone, with hopes to protect 500 hectares by the end of 2020.

Serra’s bioenergy project has set a precedent for reducing dependence on fossil fuels while preserving natural areas to lessen the impact of forest fires. In fact, its reworking of the circular economy has been coined the “Serra Model” by Valencian authorities.

The great news is that this model can be replicated all over similar communities, utilising green waste for economic development while decreasing the threat of forest fires.

Learn more about this project: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GB8WdXFxsho