A systemic approach to fire prevention: a case study of rural fires in Portugal

Strategy & Systems Thinking
Ethnographic research, data collection, data analysis, system mapping, strategic concepts, and visual communication
6-8 months
Aalto University 
Living in an age in which natural hazards are rising as a global concern, it is crucial to understand, learn, and create strategies to tackle the problem in a systemic approach.
The growing number of people living on our planet leads to more consumption, production, energy, and resources, which has a significant impact on our planet and, consequently, on climate change. With the current pace of climate change, we get fewer disasters, but the ones we have are of a higher category. For this reason, a holistic understanding is needed: living in an age in which natural hazards are rising as a global concern, it is crucial to understand, learn, and create strategies to tackle the problem in a systemic approach.
Frequency of rural fires by region since the 1960s (adapted from IFRC, 2020).
Portugal is the European country that suffers most from rural fires, both in the number of fires and burnt areas in comparison to countries such as Spain or Greece.

Average burnt area (hectares) per five-year period in southern European countries (adapted from Lourenço, 2018).

This project focused on the study of rural fire management in Portugal. More particularly, it analysed the current status of rural fire prevention, the actors involved in the system, their interconnections and present strategies to mitigate the social, economic, and environmental consequences of rural fires in Portugal. Furthermore, it aimed to raise awareness and enable collaboration between the national government, local governments, nature and communities that live in precarious places with a high risk of rural fires.
Rural fires in Portugal are a complex issue; therefore, it was critical to investigate policies and publications that could offer a general picture of the legislation, actors, and regulations related to the rural fire management system. ​​​​​​​
To understand the rural fire management system, I began collecting and analysing documentary information from the national government and national agencies, such as legislation, decrees, and national strategies. The main goal was to provide an overview of the organisations and the actors involved in the rural fire management system and provide more analysis guidance for the interviews.

The map below illustrates the current structure of the fire prevention system and identifies the different levels of stakeholder and actor engagement, from national to local and their general roles.

Map of actor’s level of action and general roles in rural fire prevention.
To understand and support the information gained from the documents, the interviews were selected as the primary method of gathering data. 
The choice of conversational and semi-structured interview formats was decided based on the possibility of allowing for questions to be revised based on what the interviewees revealed by speaking with a broad and representative range of actors.

In total, thirteen in-depth interviews were conducted with participants in three different formats and were spread out over four months, from February to June 2020. They contributed to getting multiple perspectives on how national agencies, NGOs, and private sector organisations collaborate and how collaboration activities should be executed. 
The data provided sufficient knowledge to deconstruct the current system’s perception and unpack existing collaboration principles and activities of rural fire prevention.

Systemic overview of the rural fire prevention system.

Through the affinity diagram method, it was possible to organise the statements into groups of overlapping or identical perspectives and categorise them into broader themes. 
Five themes resulted from the data:
1) Roles & Responsibilities of Actors
2) Institutional Structure, Mindset and Attitude
3) Management and Heterogeneity of Rural Areas
4) Phenomenon of Fires
5) Forest as an Agent
The first three topics cover different aspects regarding the institutional system, the role of the actors and the characteristics of the Portuguese rural areas. The last two topics relate to recognising the role of the fire and the forest as non-human actors in the rural fire prevention system.
1 - Roles & Responsibilities of Actors
The complexity of wildfires involves many actors, resulting in a mismatch of skills and understanding of the problem. The result of the interviews shows that different actors have different roles and responsibilities within the system. Those responsibilities can be divided into four levels of action that demonstrate how the system is structured and the impact that various actors have from a strategic to an operational level and general population.​​​​​​​

2 - Institutional Structure, Mindset and Attitude
In Portugal, the rural fires in the summer of 2017 showed that the rural fire management system and its institutions were not prepared and designed to resist such devastating events.
3 - Management and Heterogeneity of Rural Areas
Rural areas today have an extremely high average age and a relatively low population density. Villages have become more desertified, and towns and cities started to grow, which led to the current situation.
4 - Phenomenon of Fires
The perception that the Portuguese society has on fire is based on amiss cultural beliefs. Even though rural fires have a negative impact, the phenomenon of fire itself is an ecological process comparable to other natural phenomena such as scrublands, agriculture and forest.
5 - Forest as an Agent
Forests ecosystems are considered, by organisations at all levels, an essential element in the mitigation of rural fires’ risks and the regeneration of the ecological ecosystem. The statement above reinforces the idea that landowners, rural and urban citizens must respect forests by acknowledging their role in preventing rural fires.
Based on the insights, a series of strategic recommendations were developed to propose new interventions.
A series of recommendations emerged from the 5 main findings presented before. The primary objective of these recommendations is to propose new interventions at a strategic level of the whole (eco)system, where any minor intervention can result in a significant shift in behaviour.

The strategic recommendations are formed and explained using Meadows’ list of leverage points from 6 to 4, which are the leverage points that have a higher transformative impact, but are harder to design and implement. 
Disasters, in particular rural fires, are one of the most complex challenges that humanity faces. The increased complexity of societal challenges has shown that the traditional design practices are no longer applicable to the current issues that society is facing. 

The project established systems thinking skills as a new basis for design’s core competencies and professional success when confronted with complex problems. With the need to rethink systems, this project suggested that rural fires require a systemic approach to comprehend and address the issue. Incorporating a holistic approach into the design process makes it possible to understand complex, multi-actor infrastructure systems such as those used in rural fire prevention. 
The project encountered some limitations. First, the project was conducted during a pandemic, which had a significant impact on the course of the project. Even though the data collected has an acceptable representation of the different actors, there were many challenges in reaching out to other actors, prominent representatives from other governmental institutions that have a relevant role in the rural fire prevention system. A broader representation of more organisations and a more significant number of interviews could contribute to richer data. 

Due to this project's overlapping timelines, collaboration with participants was not as close as it should have been to ensure the recommendations were valuable. A collaborative approach involving the participants throughout the research process could have contributed to more neutral results. 

You may also like

Back to Top