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High risk in springtime: Experts warn of forest fire risk in Rhine-Sieg

High risk in springtime : Experts warn of forest fire risk in Rhine-Sieg

The risk of forest fires in the Rhine-Sieg District is increasing along with climate change. Spring is the critical season. Experts are making proposals for focused monitoring of the forests.

Fires in Kottenforst, Wahner Heide and near Lohmar all within one week - the forest and grass fire danger index is currently at code red. The danger of our forests burning has increased in recent years. A look back a few months around the globe confirms this: the devastating, six-month-long fires in Australia destroyed ten times as much forest as the average Australian fire season. Destructive forest fires are also closer to our region than anyone here would like to imagine. Two dry, hot summers and a local embankment fire affecting several houses have made many people more aware of the dangers.

Bonn meteorologist Karsten Brandt warns of the likelihood of a fire in the Siebengebirge. Dry and hot summers increase the risk of forest fires. “Climate change is here,” he says. District Fire Chief Dirk Engstenberg confirms the meteorologist’s assessment: “The issue of forest fire danger has reached us.”

The Siebengebirge, covering an area of 48 km2 of countryside and one of the first nature reserves in Germany, is under special protection in accordance with the Flora-Fauna-Habitat Directive. The area includes a number of popular excursion destinations and is enjoyed by local residents for cycling, jogging and walking. And it is right on the doorstep: the forest borders the villages all along the Rhine.

The largest owner of the nature reserve also recognises the increasing danger of forest fires. The Verschönerungsverein Siebengebirge has this very topic on its agenda. Chairman Hans-Peter Lindlar explains that they are in discussions with experts. “Above all, we are trying to sensitise local residents.” For example, by trying to prevent flying sparks from igniting the forest during barbecue season.

The danger is particularly great in spring, when the ground is still covered by a layer of old foliage and shrubbery. "If it doesn't rain at this time of year, it all ignites particularly easily," says Brandt. Easter has been identified as a particularly critical time by Thomas-Hans Deckert, head of the Rhine-Sieg-Erft forestry department. "Because at this time there are also a lot of walkers out and about," he explains. "And humans are a big risk factor." But he admits that they are also a help. For example, two small fires were reported by walkers before they became a disaster. "Attentive walkers are worth their weight in gold," says Deckert.

Karsten Brandt makes a proposal for focused monitoring of the Siebengebirge for possible forest fires. He recommends installing cameras connected to the weather station on the Oelberg. “This would allow a large part of the Siebengebirge to be observed,” he says, “and would mean that we would no longer be dependent on a random walker passing by and reporting a fire.” “That's a serious suggestion,” comments Deckert, adding that the idea could be expanded. For example, the forest at Wahner Heide could be observed from Cologne/Bonn airport.

However, experts agree that the danger in the Siebengebirge is not as great as in Australia or in Brandenburg last year. One reason for this is that 65 percent of the area is deciduous forest, in which beech trees in particular grow. Deckert explains that the aim is to reforest the remaining 35 percent of the area - on which there are mainly pine trees - with deciduous trees in the long term. Deciduous forests are less at risk than coniferous forests.

Nevertheless, experts also agree that the risk of fire has increased with climate change. “We are prepared and are continuing to prepare even further,” says District Fire Chief Engstenberg. Last year, the Rhine-Sieg District established the forest fire alert. In the event of an emergency, 80 firefighters in six fire brigades are deployed, with six kilometres of hoses and 45,000 litres of water on board. Engstenberg reports that a major exercise in forest fire preparation is planned for the summer.

Forest fires place special demands on the equipment of fire brigades and firefighters. For example, a fire in the Siebengebirge requires manoeuvrable, off-road fire trucks - and there are some, says Engstenberg. The appropriate personal equipment is also partly available. To fight forest fires, fire crews need lighter and more breathable protective clothing than for domestic fires.

Uwe Schölmerich, head of the Rhine-Sieg-Erft regional forestry department, sees the danger for the Kottenforst on the left bank of the Rhine, especially in the future. The risk will increase due to large bare areas, "because the vegetation dries out quickly in dry spells due to the unhindered sunlight and can then catch fire," says Schölmerich. "Remaining dry spruce areas will have an even worse effect because there is a lot of combustible material in the area," he continues.

There are no designated fire ponds in the Kottenforst. The existing ponds are not very suitable for extracting firefighting water. The fire brigade can no longer use the old fire ponds in the Siebengebirge mountains for fire-fighting operations. Most of them have already been removed, explains Thomas-Hans Deckert. They were mainly reservoirs in the streams and were therefore an obstruction for the animals living in the stream. What is left is unsuitable for modern fire extinguishers because of the mud and leaves on the ground.

Long-term prevention is an important issue for the forestry department. According to Deckert, this includes keeping the natural firebreaks clear. “We are trying to persuade the local authorities in their land-use planning to maintain a safety distance of 35 metres between the building developments and the forest,” he says. “Otherwise there's a danger that even a spark from summer barbecues could ignite the forest.” He sees this danger above all in the hills in Bad Honnef, where the building development is particularly densely interlocked with the mixed pine forest.

To prevent this from happening, all parties involved remain in close contact. Regular discussions between the fire brigade, the forestry department and the local authorities are intended to prevent pictures of a burning Siebengebirge from one day being seen all across the world.

(Original text: Andrea Ziech and Mario Quadt, Translation: Caroline Kusch)