A convergence of women from various corners of the globe convened in northwest Portugal this week to engage in a crucial endeavor: mastering a traditional technique aimed at mitigating the devastating impact of wildfires, increasingly exacerbated by the effects of climate change, which have claimed hundreds of lives across Europe.
Above the picturesque Portuguese town of Paredes de Coura, women adeptly wielded drip torches to strategically ignite controlled burns in thorny patches of scrubland, a practice aimed at creating grazing areas for livestock and preventing the uncontrolled spread of wildfires. Cristina Azurara, the northern regional coordinator for Portugal’s fire-management agency AGIF, emphasized the significance of imparting the knowledge of traditional fire management, as employed by ancestors, for renewing pastures and managing combustible materials.
The dire consequences of wildfires, which claimed over 100 lives in Portugal alone in 2017, underscore the urgency of adopting proactive measures. Across Europe, the escalating frequency and intensity of heatwaves have ravaged vast swathes of land, necessitating innovative approaches to wildfire prevention and management.
In contrast to the catastrophic impact of wildfires, prescribed or controlled burns offer a more sustainable solution, fostering greater biodiversity while minimizing environmental degradation. Emmanuel Oliveira, a rural fire specialist and trainer, elucidated the meticulous process involved in identifying suitable areas for controlled burns based on weather conditions, vegetation moisture levels, and smoke dispersion patterns.
Europe’s inaugural Women’s Traditional Fire Training Exchange (WTREX) attracted approximately 40 firefighters and researchers representing 20 nations, marking a significant milestone in diversifying the field of fire management, traditionally dominated by men. Beyond imparting practical skills, WTREX serves as a platform for networking, mentorship, and empowerment for women striving to make their mark in this demanding profession.
Reflecting on the transformative impact of the program, Laura Ponce, a participant from Mexico, highlighted the pivotal role of initiatives like WTREX in breaking down gender barriers and fostering inclusivity in traditionally male-dominated domains. WTREX director Lenya Quinn-Davidson emphasized the importance of creating spaces where women can thrive professionally, despite the inherent challenges they may encounter.
The collaborative efforts of participants from diverse backgrounds underscore the global significance of addressing the wildfire crisis. With the Portuguese government’s heightened investment in fire prevention initiatives following the catastrophic 2017 wildfires, tangible progress has been made in reducing the incidence of wildfires, as evidenced by AGIF’s data indicating a significant decrease in burned areas between 2018 and 2022.