By Cristina Escudero, Coordinator of the Unit for Risk Management and Emergencies in Cultural Heritage (UGRECYL) in the Junta Castilla y León and PROCULTHER-NET Focal Point ( Spain)
In Spanish forest fire regulations, a forest fire is defined as a fire that spreads uncontrolled through forest land, affecting vegetation that was not intended to burn; but beyond affecting the environment, it is clear that it can also affect people and property, among which, of course, also cultural heritage.
Every forest fire is a critical event that can destroy or irreversibly damage our heritage, since natural environments have evolved thanks to human action. This evolution can still be seen and understood through the numerous material and immaterial testimonies present in the forest conservation area and which make up the local memory, history and culture.
Recent examples such as the Moais of Rapa Nui in Chile (1), the Joseon temple in Korea (2) or the rock art in Bolivia (3). They show that while a fire in a forest environment destroys our cultural assets, as does an earthquake, flood or other unforeseen disasters; their protection is not usually included in the planning and regulations against this type of emergency.
Important European reference documents, developed as proposals for dealing with risks and disasters, do not include cultural heritage in addressing the risk of forest fires, as can be found in the Recommendations for National Risk Assessment for Disaster Risk Management in the EU. (4)
In this document, cultural heritage is cited as a value to be protected against the risk of floods (pages 72-80) or earthquakes (pages 122-136) and is present in both risk assessments and management plans. However, in the chapter on forest fires there is not a single reference to heritage. We assume it will be included in the section on "assets exposed to forest fires".
Encouragingly, the authors point out that some aspects need to be improved, “such as the proper estimation of the socio-economic value of assets that may be exposed to wildfires (...) and the recovery period after fires. This information is often not available and has to be estimated through indirect data sets”.
Why should cultural heritage be present and explicitly mentioned on the same level as natural heritage? Because we can hardly protect what is not mentioned, because what is not mentioned does not exist.
Forest Fire and Cultural Heritage Regulations: State of the Art in Spain
In Spain, the coordination of state and regional strategies against forest fires is carried out through regulatory and management instruments. Of particular note is the Basic Guideline on the risk of forest fires - which establishes the criteria and content of planning for this type of emergency at state and autonomous community level (Royal Decree 893/2013, 21 November). (5) The special civil protection plans of the Autonomous Communities for response to emergencies arising from this risk are also basic. The Autonomous Communities have all the competences regarding forest fire extinction in their territory.
The basic guideline only mentions historical-artistic heritage as a vulnerable element; and as such, it has been included in the different plans, both the state and autonomous community ones. It can be seen that the oldest plans only mention it, while the most recent ones, as the importance and transcendence of cultural heritage has been recognised, develop the concept or the actions to be improved and further carried out, such as the Civil Protection Plan for Forest Fire Emergencies of the Principality of Asturias (INFOPA). (6)
The case of Castilla y León
The Emergency Civil Protection Plan for Forest Fires in Castilla y León (INFOCAL) (7) drawn up in 1999 describes, verbatim, the provisions of the basic regulations, limiting itself to the mention of historical-artistic heritage.
The situation experienced in 2022 (8) (disastrous for Spain in terms of forest fires) had catastrophic consequences in Castilla y León. Regretting, above all, the loss of human lives to which must be added the loss of homes, crop fields, traditional operation based on the exploitation of the natural environment (beekeeping, mushroom picking, hunting and fishing) and, of course, damage to cultural heritage.
This exceptional situation led to the approval by the Spanish Government of Royal Decree-Law 15/2022 of 1 August (9), adopting urgent measures on forest fires, which brought with it a chain of regulations and decree-laws to bring operations up to date with the problems detected. Such as DECREE-LAW 2/2023, of 13 April (10), on Urgent Measures for the Prevention and Extinction of Forest Fires in Castilla y León.
This decree, a step prior to the updating of the Plan (INFOCAL), among other novelties, incorporates an extensive chapter on heritage: 4.7. VULNERABILITY OF ARTISTIC AND CULTURAL HERITAGE (pages 87-89), developed in collaboration with the Directorate General for Cultural Heritage and the Cultural Heritage Risk and Emergency Management Unit (UGRECYL).
Section 4.7 establishes the importance of the community's cultural heritage and the categories of protection: World Heritage; Assets of Cultural Interest and Inventoried Heritage.
Among the aforementioned assets, those classified as "highly vulnerable" are those which, in the event of a forest fire, would significantly lose the values that motivated their classification/protection. Adopting some measures to safeguard them, such as:
- Addressing the creation and integration in the emergency management systems of geodatabases of high priority Assets of Cultural Interest.
- Addressing the definition of specific preventive measures, analysing the existence and characteristics of self-protection plans and advising the competent body on risks and ways to reduce them.
- Establish an operational protocol to deal with emergencies that may affect these assets.
This decree is undoubtedly an important step, as it gives visibility to cultural heritage and begins to define some of the requirements to be taken into account in prevention and extinction operations.
The development of a pan-European approach to the risk and problems of forest fires must consider cultural heritage and promote its protection among the Member States, encouraging its inclusion in the sector's regulations.
These are fundamental aspects if we want to guarantee the survival of our cultural wealth; acknowledging that it can be an economic resource for the recovery of areas affected by forest fires and that it reinforces social cohesion and the feeling of belonging; contributing to heal the consequences on people and communities affected by this type of events.
Addressing Natural and Cultural Heritage together in the face of wildfire risks contributes to the development of more resilient communities in harmony with their physical environment.
- https://publications.jrc.ec.europa.eu/repository/handle/JRC133215 ; https://www.wwf.es/nuestro_trabajo/bosques/incendios_forestales_/los_peores_incendios_forestales_en_espana ; https://www.proteccioncivil.es/documents/20121/0/Informe%20de%20Seguimiento%20de%20IIFF%2020221009.pdf/b1434972-fe01-dd63-2e91-b920e31dde05