Coexisting with wildfire? Achievements and challenges for a radical social-ecological transformation in Catalonia (Spain)

Iago Otero, Jonas Nielsen

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

    34 Citations (Scopus)


    © 2017 Elsevier Ltd The challenge of sustainability is not about producing more or better managerial knowledge. It is in fact a transformation of the systems and structures that perpetuate environmental problems that is emerging as the key sustainability goal. In this paper we show the relevance of this argument, by using wildfires as symptoms of the challenges posed by global change to western societies, where wildfires are becoming increasingly problematic. Climate change, land abandonment, exurban expansion and fire suppression schemes are some of the main reasons behind this. Tackling the increasing intensity and complexity of wildfires is consequently emerging as an important research and policy topic. A central question in the literature is how to achieve a more sustainable coexistence with wildfire. Fuel reduction treatments, fire restoration, the reform of current suppression policies and adaptive institutional arrangements have all been debated. However, the social-ecological transformations needed to effectively implement these management options are not sufficiently understood. This paper looks at the efforts of the Catalan wildfire management system to cope with wildfire risk over the last decades. In particular, the emergence of GRAF, a group of wildfire fighting specialists in the Fire Department, is described. Emphasizing the need to understand wildfires as an inherent part of Mediterranean ecosystems, the expansion of GRAF highlights how learning to coexist with wildfire in Catalonia has triggered a set of transformative processes in institutional arrangements and power relationships of the wildfire management system. Our data also illustrate how coexisting with wildfire entails a dramatic social-ecological transformation in terms of land-uses, settlement patterns, energy supply systems and social values about wildfires. Moreover, we warn that in the absence of such systemic changes, management improvements might paradoxically reinforce risk. We conclude that wildfire researchers and practitioners should link the proposed management options to a deeper debate on how to produce alternative, less flammable landscapes, as agents of a broader social-ecological transformation to sustainability.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)234-246
    Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2017


    • GRAF
    • Social-ecological transformation
    • Wildfire
    • Wildfire risk


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