Arthur Temple College of Forestry and Agriculture

Dr. Brian Oswald, ATCOFA's Joe C. Denman Distinguished Professor of fire ecology, is guiding agencies in the Netherlands as they work to address the growing threat of wildland fires.

“They’re estimating they’re getting an increase in the number of fires and in area about 4% a year, and they’re also the part of Europe showing the greatest increases in temperatures and climate change,” Oswald explained.

The relationship began at the 2010 Human Dimensions of Wildland Fire Conference in San Antonio when Oswald attended a presentation given by Alette Smeenk of the Netherlands emergency preparedness agency, the Regional Organization for Public Safety of North and East Gelderland (VNOG). Historically, the country has experienced few wildfires and has not traditionally used fire as a management tool. These two factors result in an extensive lack of information regarding fire behavior, fuel loads, and how to prepare for future fire events.

“In my view, getting public and private partners significantly involved in the prevention of incontrollable wildland fires is the biggest challenge that we are facing in our country,” said Smeenk, VNOG’s policy advisor for risk and disaster management.

Since 2012, Oswald and 6 students from the Arthur Temple College of Forestry and Agriculture have worked in the Netherlands and England collecting vegetative data to produce accurate fire-spread computer models. These models synthesize weather and vegetative data to provide scientists with an estimate of fire behavior and effects, allowing agencies to prepare for and potentially mitigate damages.

This summer, forestry students Tamara Bennett and Courtney Threadgill spent two months studying fire fuel loads in Northumberland, England. The data, collected in England due to the fragile and protected nature of the Netherlands’ peatlands, will be used to develop fire fuel load models used in the Netherlands. In previous summers, data collected by students produced two volumes which estimate natural fuels found in the Veluwe and Dunes Region of the country.

According to Smeenk, these efforts have equipped the country with the first quantitative basis for wildland fire risk assessment and strengthened the collaboration with fire and rescue services in the United Kingdom.

Oswald says the Netherlands’ burgeoning venture into fire ecology provides a unique opportunity for the US students involved. Due to the country’s inexperience with controlled burns and wildland fires, students act as ambassadors for the use of fire as a management tool, sharing their knowledge with agencies and local media.

The next component of the partnership will be addressing agency and public perception of fire, an endeavor undertaken by forestry graduate student Amy Brennan. Brennan’s thesis aims to quantify the extent to which citizens think about wildland fires and subsequently determine if there perceptions align with government agencies.

“The assumption is that the Dutch don’t think much of fire because they have no historical context for it,” Brennan explained.

If this assumption proves true, she said, the next step will be the development of a public education program similar to the US’ Firewise initiative.

“There are multiple aspects to this whole thing,” Oswald asserts. “It’s not just public awareness, it’s agency awareness, it’s ecological awareness.”