Fighting fires through wetland restoration

by Alina Lepeshkina, Corinna Van Cayzeele, and Elleni Vendras

This April, vast fires raged across Polesia in Ukraine and Belarus. Climate change and continued drainage of wetlands weakens the ecosystems’ potential to slow or stop such fires. We are likely to see fires become more frequent and intense in the region unless major action is takenRestoring drained mires is crucial to reverse the trend.

The fires in the transboundary area of Northern Ukraine and Southern Belarus this spring made news worldwideThe thought of not only fire and smoke, but of radioactive material from the Chernobyl exclusion zone being churned up and spread, terrified people in the region and abroadAlthough this was not the case and according to experts not likely, the fires cause devastating destruction. 

Fires in Turov meadows. ©️ Maksim Belotsky
Fires in Turov meadows. ©️ Maksim Belotsky

As climate change increases temperatures and droughts, such fires will only gain in strength. The good news is that the diverse natural network of ecosystems in Polesia can be the most powerful defense ally against this process. It just needs a little help. 

The rivers Pripyat and Dnieper with their meanders are the life veins of Polesia, one of Europe’s largest wilderness and wetland areas. This April, their floodplains and forests burnt in several districts in Belarus and Ukraine. The fires consuming forests, grass and bushes were far more than in previous years. After years of drought and draining the land, the flames were difficult to stop. Over the next years, the destruction brought by fires is likely to become worse unless land management changes. 

Years of droughts and drainage had preceded the fires 

As a consequence of climate change, extensive spring floods have decreased across Polesia. With ground water level declining, the risk of fire increases. What adds heavily to this threat is the so-called land reclamation through drainage, performed mainly in the 1960s and 1970sThe most serious and difficult to extinguish fires in the region occur in dry floodplains, on drained peatlands or disturbed bogsWhen peat catches fire, it can burn for weeks. This not only magnifies the fires difficult to extinguish, but also accelerates climate change as peatlands store more carbon than any other terrestrial biome. Untouched wetlands are far more resistent. 

When a fire spreads over hundreds of hectares, it is not easy to extinguish it. Rather than increasing the number of fire brigades, there is a more effective way to combat spring firesNatural barriers will help to stop a large forest fire, explains Maxim Nemchinov from APB-BirdLife Belarus: 

When draining wetlands, violating the water regime with canals and dams, straightening and canalizing rivers, [people] deprive nature, and thereby themselves, of the most reliable defense line.

Restoring disturbed wetlands is one of the most effective ways to prevent increasing harm through fires. Th“Polesia – Wilderness Without Borders” project continues its restoration activities on over 6000 hectares of previously drained mires. 

Alina Lepeshkina and Corinna Van Cayzeele are Communication Officers at APB-BirdLife and FZS, respectively. Elleni Vendras is the Project Coordinator at FZS.

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The project “Polesia – Wilderness Without Borders” is part of the Endangered Landscapes Programme and is funded by Arcadia – a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin. The project is coordinated by Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS) and implemented in collaboration with the Ukrainian Society for the Protection of Birds (USPB), APB-Birdlife Belarus, and the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO).