When wildfires surrounded his family-run farm in Northeast Spain four years ago, all that Pau Figueras Mundo could do was watch, helplessly, as the flames edged closer.

Though his goat and sheep farm in Girona remained intact, the fires raged for two days, burning through 550 hectares (1,359 acres) of land and forcing more than 100 people to evacuate.

The fire still haunts Mundo – and now that the 36-year-old has a young family of his own, knowing it could happen again is even more terrifying.

“We work here. Our life is close to the woods. We’ve experienced big wildfires, so we’re very worried,” he said, holding a wooden staff as hundreds of his animals grazed in the forest. “If there’s a wildfire, it’ll be right behind our farm and that’s our whole life. Mundo’s parents live with him in this dry rural area flanked by forest.

It’s a scenario that has become all too familiar in recent months. Over the summer, Europe was scorched by wildfires, fuelled by hotter temperatures, high winds and poorly managed forest and scrubland that can often burn along roads and near villages and towns, fire experts say.

Exceptionally dry and hot weather in June ignited Portugal’s worst fire disaster in memory, killing 64 people and injuring a further 160. Fires continued to flare afterward with the arrival of each new hotter spell of weather.

In July, Italian firefighters fought more than 1,000 wildfires amid high temperatures and drought.

That same month, French firefighters battled wind-whipped infernos along the French Riviera coast, the flames torching vegetation on hills overlooking glitzy resorts, and sending tourists fleeing.


Animal ‘fire brigade’

With the threat of worsening wildfires on their doorstep, farmers like Mundo and Judite Nadal, also living in rural Girona, are now stepping up an old agricultural practice: using their animals to graze dense forests to reduce the severity of wildfires.

“The animals contribute very much in saving lives [and] in the health of the forests, by cleaning them,” said 44-year-old Nadal, who four years ago began rearing sheep and goats specifically to tackle wildfires.

Under the guidance of Spain’s Pau Costa Foundation, an independent wildfire prevention group, both Nadal and Mundo send their animals to munch on overgrown areas with a high fire risk.

That helps eliminate undergrowth that – if it is not removed in key areas, such as near villages or homes – can lead to fires spreading quickly and burning with greater intensity, simply because there is more fuel for them, said Oriol Vilalta, director of the foundation.

Once a wildfire is sparked in an unkept forest or scrubland, it’s almost impossible to stop, said Vilalta, a former firefighter with the Catalan Fire Service. “Firefighters tell us that they don’t have enough power to fight these high-intensity fires,” he said.

While fire brigades can reduce the amount of vegetation through planned burns, Vilalta said putting animals on the job was a cheaper, more sustainable solution since farmers can also sell the milk and meat that results. “We call them firefighters. They are not human firefighters but they help us to prevent and suppress fires,” he said.

Firefighters from the Catalan Fire Service extinguish a small wildfire next to a residential area in the village of Artés, in the northeast region of Girona, Spain, 09 August, 2017. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Lin Taylor.

Generations of neglect

Nadal said shepherds like herself are an under-utilised resource that more landowners and councils should hire to help “clean” the land.

“I don’t think people are conscious of the risk of fires,” Nadal said, as her small herd of goats grazed on shrubs at the edge of a forest. “They are not conscious [of the problem] until they have the fire inside the house. They don’t do anything to prevent it.”

With younger generations of Europeans now having moved from rural areas to bigger cities for work, more fields and forests lie neglected and overgrown, said Portuguese wildfire expert António José Bento-Gonçalves.

Adding literal fuel to the fire, particularly in Spain and Portugal, has been the import of fast-growing eucalyptus trees. The Australian natives have oily leaves that can encourage the rapid spread of wildfires.

“We are accumulating combustible vegetation and we have emptied the countryside of people. Nobody cleans the fuels, nobody has animals to eat the vegetation,” said Bento-Gonçalves, who works at Portugal’s University of Minho.

He said he was not surprised when the deadly June fires broke out in his home country.

“It was almost inevitable that one day this would happen,” he said. “My big concern is that probably in 10 years we’ll once again have this kind of disaster – and again in 20 years, and again and again.”

Catalan farmers Pau Figueras Mundo (left), 36, and his father Xavier Figueras Costa, 62, watch over their sheep and goats in a field, in Jafre, in the northeast region of Girona, Spain, 09 August, 2017. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Lin Taylor

‘Going to get worse’

As temperatures rise as a result of climate change, Europe’s death toll from weather disasters, including heatwaves, wildfires and drought, could increase 50-fold by the end of this century, according to a study in The Lancet Planetary Health journal.

“With human-caused climate change, it’s just going to get worse,” said fire expert David Karoly from the University of Melbourne in Australia – a largely arid country prone to what are known as “bushfires”.

Karoly said climate change is increasing the likelihood of weather conditions that are conducive to wildfires – namely, less rainfall and hotter temperatures. “Not only do we have more intense and more frequent fires, but the fire season is starting earlier in the year and lasting longer – and all of that is due to climate change,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Extreme fires that were once rare, such as the “Black Saturday” bushfires that killed 173 Australians in 2009, will become more frequent, predicted Richard Thornton, director of the Bushfire and Natural Hazard Cooperative Research Centre in Australia. “We’re seeing the same with floods, the same with heatwaves – what used to be a one-in-a-thousand-year event is now much more frequent,” he said.

Though wildfires are common in hot Mediterranean regions, in the coming decades they are expected to occur more often as well in cooler northern European countries such as Britain, Sweden, Germany and Switzerland, due to rising temperatures, Thornton said. “The fires will move further north into areas that are not traditionally fire-prone,” he said. “So a lot of countries are now having to think about how to do things differently.”

While it’s hard to prevent wildfires from starting, Spanish farmer Mundo said at least he no longer feels entirely at the mercy of the elements with his goats helping out. “I like this job, helping to prevent wildfires, because I’m directly affected,” he said. “It’s part of the solution.”

This article first appeared on Thomson Reuters Foundation News.