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Fire in the forest! What to do?

Michael Welling and Tanja Sanders | 12.05.2021


WO Institute of Forest Ecosystems

Again high risk of forest fires. Ample amounts of dry wood and, as the 2021 Forest Condition Survey shows, trees severely affected by the drought of recent years. May and July in particular are the months with the most forest fires. What you personally can do when discovering a fire.

It burns, it smokes or glows in the forest? Whether you see open fire, glowing or smouldering material, or simply smoke: Don’t hesitate to dial 112! You can reach the fire department and rescue service throughout Germany by dialling this number.

  • State your name and describe the location as precisely as possible.
  • Whenever possible, go to a rescue point (see below) to brief the emergency services from there on the damage area.
  • Give your mobile number to the control centre and make yourself available for any further queries.

Do not put yourself in danger. Move away from the fire site and pay attention to the wind direction – a forest fire can spread quickly in windy and particularly dry conditions.

Forest rescue points are defined locations in the forest that use coordinates to describe meeting points. You can recognize rescue points by boards in the entrance area of forests. They make it easier to indicate your own location in case of accidents or fires. The rescue control centre can assign the number on the board, and medical staff or firefighters can find their way to the scene of the accident more quickly.

The rescue point files can be downloaded centrally at www.rettungspunkte-forst.de. With the free app "Hilfe im Wald" (for Android and iOS), the respective rescue points (now more than 50,000) can also be easily found via GPS using a smartphone.

Forest fires can have very different causes; unfortunately intent or negligence are often involved:

  • Arson.
  • Cigarettes: from March 1 to October 31 (in Saxony-Anhalt from February 15 to October 15), smoking is prohibited in the forest. In the German states of Berlin, Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Rhineland-Palatinate, Saxony and Thuringia, smoking and open fires are even banned all year round.
  • Campfires and barbecues in the forest.
  • Hot catalytic converters from cars or motorcycles parked in the forest or at the edge of the forest.
  • Flying sparks from trains or fast rotating machine parts of forestry or agricultural machines.
  • Spontaneous combustion (e.g. by old phosphorus ammunition or rotting hay).
  • In rare cases a lightning strike can result in a fire.

Every year, the Federal Agency for Agriculture and Food (BLE) compiles data on forest fire frequency and forest fire area in Germany. According to this data, there have been an average of around 800 forest fires per year over the past ten years. Most forest fires occur in May and July. Compared to other German states, Brandenburg is particularly susceptible to forest fires because of its rapidly drying, sandy soils and easily combustible pine forests.

In some years, damage caused by forest fires can easily amount to one or more million euros, such as in 2000, 2003, 2008, 2010, 2018 and 2019. In 2020, forest fires also caused high damage, even though the forest fire area of 368 hectares was significantly smaller than in the two previous years.

Forest fires usually start as ground fires. It can start when there is a lot of organic material such as leaves and dead wood on the ground. A ground fire is still fairly easy to fight, but can spread quickly through undergrowth and dry vegetation.

If a ground fire grows into a wildfire, it can spread to trunks - especially in conifer stands.

A wildfire can become a full fire, resulting in rapid spread of flames. The full fire includes ground vegetation, the trunk, and the crown of the tree. Dry needles cause the crowns to ignite in an extremely massive manner, contributing to accelerated and extensive spread.

In the case of a full fire, the firefighting operation is dangerous and difficult to bring under control. The fire intensity is so high that even wider paths can be jumped by the fire. It is difficult to prevent spread. A full fire can often only be successfully fought with support from the air.

The German Weather Service (Deutscher Wetterdienst; DWD) publishes the so-called forest fire hazard index (Waldbrandgefahrenindex) on its website on a daily basis. This shows on a map how high the forest fire danger is in the individual regions of Germany from a meteorological point of view.

The danger level is divided into five stages:

Level 1very low danger
Level 2low danger
Level 3medium danger
Level 4high danger
Level 5very high danger

As a further development of the forest fire hazard index, the Thünen Institute of Forest Ecosystems is creating a collection of data on forest fire history in the ErWiN collaborative project to better understand forest fire causes and dynamics. The collaborative project is developing maps (e.g., below) that consider relevant forest structure parameters in addition to weather-based factors.

A few years ago, the Thünen Institute of Forest Ecosystems, together with the Humboldt University of Berlin, developed a system for early detection of forest fires. The core of the system is a hydrogen sensor. When organic material burns, the first thing that is produced is hydrogen. If the hydrogen concentration in the air exceeds a certain threshold, the sensor reports the possible fire to a control center. In this way, a smoldering fire can be detected before there is an open flame. Valuable time is saved.

More information is available from the Thünen project INPRIWA. In an interview in the magazine "Wissenschaft erleben, 2019/1" Jürgen Müller (Thünen Institute) and Michael Luthardt (State Competence Center for Forestry) talk about the novel forest fire sensor and the challenges following the 2018 forest fires (in German).

In addition to other climate-relevant gases, forest fires emit CO2, which was previously sequestered as carbon in the wood. Data on greenhouse gas emissions are reported annually in the National Inventory Report (NIR); emissions caused by forest fires are listed there in the LULUCF sector (Land Use, Land Use Change, Forestry).

In 2018 and 2019 for example, years with severe forest fires in Germany, the emissions caused by those fires were around 171,000 and 199,000 tons of CO2 equivalents, respectively. In the large peatland fire in Emsland (Lower Saxony) in 2018, about 637,000 tons of CO2 equivalents were emitted into the atmosphere. However, these amounts are small compared to greenhouse gas emissions from organic soils (cultivated peat soils, etc.). These emissions account for 49-50 million tons each year (see graph for 2018). On the other hand, the LULUCF sector also sequesters greenhouse gases as "negative emissions", including mineral soils, biomass, and wood products. More detailed information is provided in the Expertise in the Thünen topic "Climate and air".

What impact did the three consecutive dry summers of 2018, 2019 and 2020 have on forest vitality - in addition to forest fires? How can forests adapt to climate change? More information here.

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