Fire, conflict and land systems in the Middle East

Since 2019, I’ve been (loosely) involved in a Marie Curie project on fire and conflict in the Middle East: FIRE – Fighting Insurgency Ruining the Environment. In this project we have looked into the spatiotemporal dynamics of forest/wild fires and conflict.

An area close to Jerusalem that burned in 2017

There is a lot to learn and understand about fires in order to study them from a geographer’s perspective. Below are some points that I have learned from working with fire data.

  • Fires can have multiple causes. Some factors, such as weather/climate increase the risk of fire, while other factors cause the actual ignition. Humans actions are a common cause of ignition, and can be intentional (arson, burning of agricultural fields) or unintentional (e.g. a picknick barbecue gone wrong). Then once the fire has started, the damage and spread is determined by multiple factors, such as the fire protection infrastructure or the availability of biomass to burn.
  • Wild fires or forest fires have been linked to climate change, and the risk of fire is expected to change with increasing global temperatures and drought frequencies, see for example the IPCC report from 2014.
  • Fires are not only negative for the environment. In many areas of the world, fires are used as a land management strategy. It is a way to remove unwanted vegetation, and controlled burning is also a method to to control wildfire spread, through removing the “fuel”.
  • There are several satelllite based fire products that show where and when fires have occurred. The main ones are:
    • MODIS Active Fire (AF): A 1 km dataset using thermal anomalies to detect fires, covering the period 2000-present.
    • MODIS Burned Area (BA): a 500 m dataset using active fire data together with surface reflectance to detect areas that have burned.
    • VIIRS Active Fire (AF): A 375 m dataset that also uses thermal anomalies to detect fires, covering the period 2012-present.
    • Some datasets available through Google Earth Engine are listed here.
  • If the products are too coarse or not sufficient for the research intended, there are other methods for mapping fires on a more detailed scale, using for example Landsat (30 m) or Sentinel (10 m) data.
  • Our preliminary research shows that occurrence of fires to some extent follow the spatio-temporal patterns of conflict. Fires have been claimed to be used as a means of conflict by governments and insurgent groups in conflict areas, but little research have looked into the actual fire-conflict patterns.

With the above points, I think it would be really interesting to learn more about the relationship between fires and conflicts on a larger scale. Furthermore, there is a need to better understand fire and its causes in order to prepare for a world with increased fire risk, due to climate change, conflicts and other human-induced factors.

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