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The sustainable management of cork as a forest fire prevention tool

The great proliferation offorest fires that is taking place this summer both in Catalonia and in the whole country show, once again, that the best tool we have to put out fires is prevention; that is to say, the forest management.

In the case of corks, in Catalonia we find a l'Empordà, les Gavarres, Montseny-Guilleries i Montnegre-Corredor, areas that during this month of July have been at moderate, high or very high risk of fires as indicated Civil Protection of the Generalitayou that therefore need to be protected.

In this sense, forestry management is essential not only to maintain its productive potential, but also to reduce the vegetation mass of the forest and, therefore, remove fuel in case of fire. A cork put into production requires maintenance to optimize its productivity:

-Make a bush stand a year before peeling.

-Carry out a selective cut between one and two years after peeling.

-Proceed to grate the cork (a process that facilitates its extraction) between three and four years after peeling.

-Perform an optional stand seven years after the peel and a stand of bushes thirteen years after the peel, when there is only one year left to do a new cork extraction.

This series of tasks is an example of how cork peeling, as well as the rest of the economic revitalization activities that are carried out in the corks, contribute to the extinguishing of fires, because the absence of the fuel that represents the undergrowth makes it difficult for the flames to spread and the maintenance of paths makes it easier for the fire brigade and extinguishing means to pass when there is a fire.

Cork, resistant and resilient

The cork oak is itself a valuable ally in stopping fires, as cork is a natural firestop because it is a material with very low conductivity that acts as a thermal insulator. According to the doctor Patricia Young, responsible for R+D+i of the Catalan Institute of Cork Foundation in this article: “cork oak is considered a highly fire-resistant species due to the insulating properties of its bark and it is proven that the effects of a fire are observed at most in the outermost layers of 1-2 mm. After the fire, the ability to resprout the stem and the cup is maintained."

Managed corks concentrate fuel in the crowns, have a relatively sparse understory and a forest structure with vertical discontinuity, which makes it difficult for fires to pass through the crowns and reduce their spread and intensity.

The resilience of a well-managed cork is also significant. In fact, in the event of a fire, the survival rate of a cork oak that has experienced a fire is estimated to be 70%  ("Regeneration in burnt cork trees", SUBERVIN project).

At the end of 2021, the Department of Climate Action of the Generalitat established among its objectives to create more fire-resistant landscapes as a measure against fires. With its insulating properties and its high survival rate, the cork oak is therefore a great ally against fires. Its management, integrated into a mosaic agroforestry landscape together with vineyards and crops, can be the key to not increasing the volume and magnitude of fires in our home.