Can Olive Trees Protect From Forest Fires?

The summer of 2017 was a long and hot one across much of the Mediterranean. Low rainfall and high temperatures resulted in widespread drought but also destructive forest fires in several countries, including Portugal, France, Italy, Croatia, Greece and Turkey.

Portugal was the worst hit, with 141,000 hectares decimated by fire and 64 lives lost. In Greece, 15,000 hectares of land were lost to fires, while in France an area of 12,000 hectares was devastated.

A report by Euronews revealed that forest fires in the European Union has risen threefold to 1,068 in 2017 so far, compared to an average of 404 over the past eight years.

After taking stock of the extent of the damage, the causes of the fires were traced to a variety of causes: lightning strikes, arson, human negligence and inadequate forest management.

In Portugal, the fact that eucalyptus trees make up over a quarter of the country’s forest cover was considered a significant cause for the rapid propagation of the deadly fires. The bark and sap of the fast-growing eucalyptus are highly flammable and added fuel to the already raging fires. Eucalyptus trees were also to blame for California’s second deadliest fire in history – the 1991 fire in Oakland.

Today eucalyptus pulp is one of Portugal’s biggest exports. In recent years, former agricultural lands left to abandon were transformed into groves of eucalyptus to be sold as a cash crop to the pulp and paper industry.

In light of this summer’s deadly fires, local environmental groups are now lobbying to have these groves replanted with native cork and holm oaks which are less flammable and more resistant to fire than the highly combustible eucalyptus.

Meanwhile, in the department of Var in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region of southeastern France, local farmers and political leaders are discussing the possibility of planting more olive groves and vineyards to protect agricultural land from drought and forest fires. This year alone, the department has experienced 398 forest fires with a loss of 3,562 hectares. More