Oriol Vilalta

This description of Oriol Vilalta's work was prepared when Oriol Vilalta was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2018 .

Introduction

Oriol is leading a paradigm change in the wildfire community by shifting the focus from fire extinction to management and prevention. He has built a global community of researchers, firefighters and civil society members to share knowledge and create new solutions to make the forests and rural areas safer and more prosperous.

The New Idea

Oriol is changing the lens with which fire management is seen in order to improve prevention of destructive wildfires and rural conservation. According to Oriol, fire should not be seen as the problem that must be extinguished, but instead, the real challenge lies in the environment in fire-prone areas and how it is managed.

To build this new framework, Oriol founded the Pau Costa Foundation and set up the first international forest community focused on fire prevention and forest management. He created a community of private and public organizations including researchers, those who operate in the field (forest guards, firemen, farmers) and citizens, who can now align and develop new solutions and common policies to create a more efficient system in the prevention of wildfires.

Oriol and his community are showcasing how investing in prevention is more efficient to fight wildfires than investing in new extinguishment technologies. By offering methodologies to strategically re-use abandoned rural areas (such as creating natural firewalls through sustainable activities like biomass production, organic livestock, viticulture, rural tourism and others), he dramatically reduces the probability of fire ignition. Furthermore, these preventive activities are revenue-generating, and have the significant effect of improving rural living conditions and economic development.

In addition, the Pau Costa Foundation is working to unify traditionally fragmented working practices. Cross border fires can be fatal as different protocols, equipment and approaches are used by different countries or states. Faced with this reality, Oriol brings together the key actors to define and create a common framework across borders that are not only more efficient in economic terms, but, most importantly, save lives.

The Problem

With the increase of rural exodus and, the consequential, abandonment and disuse of large rural areas, as well as changes in climate that we are largely unable to control, vegetation becomes increasingly susceptible to igniting fire. In Europe, there is 50% more forest land than 25 years ago, dramatically increasing the probabilities of the spread of the fire.

Despite additional investment in fire extinction around the world, forest fires are now larger and more frequent than ever. Not only do they destroy natural biodiversity in an uncontrollable manner, but they are also a matter of human safety, with one hundred lives lost in the latest fires in Portugal in 2017 and over ten thousand homes burnt in California.

These episodes put fire extinction on the political agenda, however, there is still a wide spread paradigm of an either/or model between extinction or prevention, while both are relevant and connected. Politics impose short-term measures such as fire extinction and ignore long-term ecology solutions, while intense corporate lobbies for purchasing fire extinction equipment exacerbate the situation. To date, there is no counter-lobby focused on wildfire and forest management, and little investment in doing so - as an example, in the fire-hit region of Valencia in Spain, only 5% of the total budget for Fire Services goes to prevention initiatives.

Furthermore, in terms of fire management, there are few common regional or global operational practices, not in the 16 regions of Spain, nor in the 21 member states of the EU, nor in the 51 states of the EEUU. This essentially means that, in case of cross-border fires, lives are at risk, since the difference of equipment and protocols obstructs coordination and rapid action.

Climate change is an additional issue, with forest fires in areas previously unheard of, like Norway, Sweden or Greenland, regions with no prior experience of managing wildfires, and therefore in need of knowledge and best practices.

Initiatives regarding research and knowledge on fire management and prevention have traditionally been suboptimal, as they have been created with little or no input from on-the-ground teams and experts.

The Strategy

Oriol identifies three levels of solutions to the wildfire problem: the short-term, through extinction (which is already happening outside of Oriol’s framework); mid-term, through shifting the focus towards the environment rather than the fire itself, and by developing solutions around prevention; and the long term, through changing national and international policies on prevention.

To tackle each level, he leads the following actions:

1. The creation of a central knowledge hub for knowledge in Spain with a global outlook

Oriol inspired and brought together 60 founding members to create the Pau Costa Foundation in 2011, a new space for grassroots knowledge management.
The Foundation cuts off the “middle man” in terms of knowledge. With 200 active members from very diverse backgrounds, Oriol is closing the gap between different sectors (academic, public administration, scientists and engineers, private sector and firefighters), creating a community where anyone can bring reliable knowledge and connect with others.

The platform collects, registers and disseminates research in the field to public and private operators. It works as a link between research and the operational side, to improve the practical application of studies and proposals in order to package them and make them accessible to the key stakeholders (politicians, head of public services etc.).

All the information is open source, and the members are empowered to become ambassadors of the new lens on fire prevention (they are sent to conferences and workshops all over the world, and work as a peer-to-peer network with a common vision). To date, Oriol has connected a variety of experts in 30 countries on 4 continents with over 2.500 specialists attending learning events and expeditions.

2. Disseminate research and lobby for Fire Management approach

Through the platform and its members, Oriol proposes two models to fire prevention: The first is a proper management of the rural environment. The diverse members of the platform (researchers, agricultures and vendors) create sustainable programs that strategically reimagine the use of forests to act as natural firewalls, and also provide economic development to revert the harmful trend of rural exodus. One example is the program “Herds of fire”: in which livestock farmers work together to have their sheep pasture in abandoned forest areas acting as a natural firewalls. With Oriol’s guidance, they have also created a local certificate with vendors that assures the sustainable effects of the meat and cheese produced under this system, is helping prevent their community, increase awareness and boost local economy.

Secondly, Oriol complements the implementation of these solutions with awareness-raising, ensuring that the right stakeholders (civil society included) are aware of the need for effective prevention, and making sure that society’s attention on fire is not only raised when a wildfire destroys their areas, but before the fire takes place. He does this by educating the general public, especially those who live in high risk areas or who have already been affected by fire. These educational programs (documentaries, school programs, local community workshops) are offered free of charge to all interested parties. So far, 2,000 adults and children have participated in these educational programs focused on changing the paradigm from extinction to prevention.

In addition, Oriol has created a Decalogue as an instrument of adherence of his preventive vision for politicians, key players in the sector and NGOs. The Decalogue has over 500 signees, including influencers such as Greenpeace and WWF, who after signing in 2015 have since moved from lobbying for more resources for the extinction of fires to lobbying for prevention and management. Oriol is deepening this strategy through structured encounters and meetings with key politicians on a regional, national and European level. He has empowered the 200 active members of this platform to become ambassadors of its message and can therefore reach a wide range of targets (this is reflected in their participation in 4 international conferences, 17 professional exchanges, and dozens of forums on firefighting and prevention, TV programs etc.). More than 600 professionals have participated in knowledge exchange and training events organized by Oriol and his team.

In March 2018, the Tuscan local government, in Italy, modified the contents of its forest management law to explicitly contain fire prevention methods recommended by the Pau Costa Foundation, such as involving local farmers and private companies in the active management of rural lands.

3. Create standard operational plans to increase efficiency

Oriol and his Pau Costa Foundation create national coordination plans for those communities and actors on the operational “hands on” side of fire prevention and extinction, as a blueprint for coordination plans among different countries, states or regions.

He unifies policies among and even within countries, so that fire prevention and extinction can be aligned anywhere in the world. Nowadays, when a wildfire crosses from Portugal to Spain, for example, firefighters from both countries have no protocol to collaborate – not even their fire trucks are compatible to share water hoses or materials. Oriol is working to change this and create common protocols across countries and continents.

Oriol and his team aim to increase systemic change through the creation of a stronger on-line platform that is, accessible and user-friendly for the community, in order to digitally share all knowledge. They are looking into Artificial Intelligence technology to improve research dissemination and to select areas of focus.

The plan for the future vision is to build local virtual hubs on a regional basis or by areas of expertise. Eventually, this international community model can be used to undertake other challenges: earthquakes, tsunamis, and other issues generated by climate change.

The Person

In July 1994, Oriol´s “playground”, a forest near Barcelona, was burnt to the ground during a 4 day-long wildfire. He was only twelve. The forest, the wheat fields, farm steadings and homes were all transformed into a black ash desert. For years, the consequences of that fire surrounded him, as did the magnitude of the fear felt by his family, friends and neighbours. So years later, while studying biology at university, it was no surprise that his main areas of interest were all related to wildfires and forests. There he discovered the magic of forest ecology; some seeds need fire to be activated, that’s why when his pine forest was burnt, oak trees appeared.

During high school, Oriol trained to be a lifeguard at his local swimming pool. His entrepreneurial attitude encouraged him become the pool coordinator, converting the municipal pool area into a space for the community by organising events for all members of the town.

Later, in 2005, Oriol began to work as a volunteer firefighter in his village and that same year, he was employed as a member of the team in charge of designing the Fire Prevention Plan for the Catalonian region. From there he moved to GRAF – a specialist group dedicated to forest fires within the Catalonian Fire Brigade. There, Oriol realized that he could change the world – that was the first time he had full understanding that the role of the Fire Brigade was not only about fighting a fire but also managing a forest.

In September 2007, after fighting fires around Europe – Portugal, Greece, Spain – Oriol realized that a piece was missing. If everybody had the same problem and yet seemed to fail in the same places, why not create an international platform that would act as a central repository for innovative solutions and a promoter of their application?

He decided to develop this idea and, by summer 2009, he had everything ready and was only missing a name for his organisation. Oriol sent an email with a few name options to the three colleagues who had worked closely with him in every step of the process. It was 13:45 on the 21st of July 2009. Less than two hours later, firefighters were engulfed by flames in the infamous Sant Joan fire, leaving five dead and one seriously injured. One of the three recipients of that email, Oriol’s closest friend and fellow firefighter Pau Costa, died in the fire. Oriol launched the Foundation in January 2011, leaving his financially stable job as a firefighter and has continued to work ever since to change the paradigm of fire prevention.