Rising temperatures as a result of climate change have sparked an increase in wildfires across Europe, igniting a burning crisis that threatens homes, communities and lives. French firefighter and European Climate Pact Ambassador Sébastien Lahaye believes that part of the solution lies not in Europe, but in the Australian Outback. Learning the fire prevention techniques of Indigenous Australians, Sébastien has made it his mission to spread the message about how we use and manage land, so that the frequency and severity of wildfires in France and across Europe can be reduced.
My world: a burning issue
Sébastien Lahaye knows a thing or two about fires, having spent over 20 years as a firefighter in Provence-Côte d’Azur – a region of southern France that is particularly dry and increasingly prone to intense blazes.
He was initially drawn to firefighting as “an action-packed career that would enable him to help people.” But, over the years, he became alarmed that the frequency and severity of forest fires were increasing. “I realised that we really needed to learn more about what’s behind the fires,” says Sébastien. This spurred him on to go back to university and complete a PhD in Environmental Sciences and Forest Firefighting.
“Climate change is driving more extreme fires,” he explains. “There is increasing dryness at higher latitudes and altitudes, so more regions are being affected.” And that’s not the only problem. More forest fires mean that more carbon is released into the atmosphere in a vicious circle that further contributes to climate change.
After completing his PhD, Sébastien spent a year in Australia – a country with a long history of wildfires – working as a researcher at the University of New South Wales in Canberra. And he found the answers he was looking for. “For 40,000 years, Indigenous Australians managed their dry land by using fire as a tool, and not seeing it as an enemy,” Sébastien explains. “In winter, they would light ‘cold fires’, also known as ‘fire-stick farming’, to burn off bush and scrub, while leaving the trees intact.”
This limited the severity of summer wildfires by removing vegetation that could act as fuel. When this practice was abandoned in the 20th century, there was a resurgence in wildfires which, combined with droughts driven by climate change, led to disaster. “In Australia, I studied the full cycle of fire risk management – from prevention to preparedness, response and resilience. Fire-stick farming is the Indigenous People’s masterpiece.”
My action: fighting fire with fire
In 2018, Europe was ablaze. More European countries suffered large wildfires than ever before, releasing plumes of carbon-rich smoke into the atmosphere – further exacerbating the climate crisis. What’s more, countries not typically affected – such as Sweden – experienced their worst fire seasons ever, requiring international assistance.
Returning to France in that year, Sébastien knew something had to be done – not only to extinguish the inferno, but also to prevent it from intensifying in future years: “Europe is going to see more extreme fires, and our current focus on response is not enough.” He became convinced that better land management, inspired by the techniques of his Australian mentors, was the key to building resilience against wildfires.
Sébastien set up a consultancy to share his knowledge and frontline experience with local firefighters and authorities, forestry experts and state public services. His small team of trained specialists, inspired by the techniques he learnt in Australia, use fire as a tool to mitigate the threat of uncontrolled burning and potentially disastrous blazes across the south of France, from the Alps to the Pyrenees, Corsica and beyond.
They also share knowledge internationally; a new project “aims to share expertise and best practices in applying controlled burning between Europe and South America.” This project would see Sébastien and his team travel across South America to spend time with locals and learn from the way they manage their land.
Sébastien also regularly visits both rural and urban communities in the south of Fr;ance. These regions are vulnerable to wildfires, so he shows them ways of better managing their land and protecting both themselves and nature, for example by properly spacing trees and clearing excess vegetation that could act as fuel.
“I aim to help everyone, from farmers who are learning how to use fire appropriately, to new settlers in the Mediterranean who don’t understand the risks involved with wildfires. Together with local authorities and services, we use innovative ways of managing the risks, involving citizens as much as possible."
Our planet: the preventative firefighters
Today, Sébastien’s journey has culminated in his consultancy making an impact in high-risk communities. By supporting teams in burning vegetation in a controlled manner, informing the public of the issue, and making buildings more fire resilient, Sébastien is helping to fight back against the devastation that has been sweeping across Europe in recent years.
He also often makes appearances on local media to talk about controlled burnings and the need for better land management. “My experience as a firefighter gives me credibility with the public. Sometimes, it can be difficult to convince people to change their behaviour, so I’m happy to be getting my message out there.”
This is not a message he could spread by himself, and he needed a way of joining forces with others to make his argument heard. In 2022, he joined the European Climate Pact – an EU network of individuals, organisations, businesses and cities encouraging grassroots action for the climate. Being a part of the Pact has enabled him to reach a broader audience with his message. “If it were just me, it would be very difficult to change things,” he says. “I have always believed that we are stronger working in a team than as individuals.”
Sébastien thinks that his role as a Climate Pact Ambassador helped him achieve an impact as he is beginning to see a change in attitudes. “When there is a major forest fire on the news, the media no longer just focus on the need for a rapid response,” he says. “They also talk about the need for prevention, and the authorities are listening to that. So, I think my message is getting through – if we don’t take preventative action and manage our land better, we will continue to see huge wildfires in Europe.”