When a wildfire ravaged nearly 50,000 acres of forest in Andilla, Spain, in 2012, experts were devastated by the loss. The area had been used for decades to study the effects of a pathogenic fungus on more than 50 types of Mediterranean cypress.
However, when researchers arrived, they found that not all of the trees had been consumed. About 946 cypresses, surrounded by the burned remains of thousands of other trees, remained bright and green.
"On our way to what we knew would be a Dante-esque scene during that tragic summer, we felt deep sadness at the thought of losing a plot of such value to the conservation of biodiversity," botanist Bernabé Moya told BBC Mundo. "But we had hope that perhaps some of the cypresses had survived.
"When we got there, we saw that all the common oaks, holm oaks, pines and junipers had completely burnt. But only 1.27 percent of the Mediterranean cypresses had ignited."
To find out what made this particular type of tree so fire-resistant, experts including Moya and his brother began what would become a three-year study to learn more about the cypress and how its surprising characteristic could be used to help manage wildfires around the world.
They discovered that even during times of drought and extreme heat, the Mediterranean cypress is able to sustain a high water content thanks to its leaves. Staying hydrated, explains Gianni Della Rocco, a research technologist at the Institute for Sustainable Plant Protection (IPSP) in Florence, Italy, “is a very favourable starting point concerning fire risk.”
In addition to the water content, the structure of the canopy aids with fire resistance. The horizontal branches are spaced apart, leaving enough room for dead sections to fall to the ground rather than getting stuck in the canopy. That movement scatters a moist litter on the ground, which helps stop the fire from getting near the trees in the first place.
"The thick and dense litter layer acts as a 'sponge' and retains water, and the space for air circulation is reduced," said Della Rocca.
Lab experiments proved that a Mediterranean cypress can take seven times as long to ignite as other varieties of trees.
How the cypress can help with fire prevention
Based on the study published in the Journal of Environmental Management, the researchers believe that this tree “could be a promising land management tool to reduce the wildfire initiation risk.”
Because it’s a hardy species that can grow in many kinds of soil and at altitudes of more than 6,500 feet, Moya says the cypress could be used to help control wildfires in areas like California, Chile and Argentina.
By planting Mediterranean cypress as a barrier, some scientists hypothesize that it could help stop fires from spreading.
However, even if it could prevent fires from getting out of control, not everyone thinks planting a nonnative species is a good idea. In 2012, botanist and conservation expert Nicolás López had this to say about the cypress and its potential use as a fire prevention tool : “Introducing a species that isn’t native is a mistake. It changes the ecosystem and endangers the rest of the flora.” But urban environments, he noted, could be a possibility.
With forest fires intensifying due to climate change and other environmental factors, Moya noted that something must be done to better protect our forests. "The fight against fires concerns us all. We owe it to the forests and we owe it to future generations."