The Mediterranean climate, particularly the prolonged dry and hot summer season, is naturally favourable to wildfires. Their frequency and impact have increased over the last few decades in southern European countries, mainly due to land-use and socio-economic changes. Many traditional rural activities (e.g. firewood collection and livestock grazing systems) have been partly or totally abandoned in favour of alternatives (e.g. fossil fuels and factory farming). These changes have led to more homogeneous landscapes and the accumulation of dry matter in forests and rangelands, resulting in a greatly increased fire hazard.
With the fires burning relentlessly and people being evacuated, scientists and local bodies are mulling their long-term options. Controlled pastoralism is one option, so is is creating a buffer zone of fire-resistant trees. Like the cypress.
Spanish scientists Bernabé and José Moya couldn’t believe their eyes.
More than 20,000 hectares of forest were charred. But in the middle of the devastation, a group of cypresses was still standing tall and green.
When a fire swept through an experimental plot in Andilla, in the Spanish province of Valencia in 2012, it gave researchers the perfect opportunity.
The plot, which was part of CypFire, a project financed by the European Union, was established during the 1980s to test the resistance of more than 50 varieties of Mediterranean cypress to a pathogenic fungus.
After the fire event of 2012, it also provided further anecdotal evidence of the peculiar resilience of the species in the face of fire.
Botanist Bernabé Moya and his brother, environmental engineer José Moya, both from the department of monumental trees in Valencia, had been involved in the project for several years.
“On our way to what we knew would be a Dante-esque scene during that tragic summer, we felt deep sadness at the thought of losing a plot of such value to the conservation of biodiversity,” Bernabé Moya told BBC Mundo.
“But we had hope that perhaps some of the cypresses had survived.”
“When we got there we saw that all the common oaks, holm oaks, pines and junipers had completely burnt. But only 1.27% of the Mediterranean cypresses had ignited.”
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