Learning from forest fires: Analysing unequal impacts, well-being and local knowledge and action

Last changed: 30 March 2023
Forest fire. Photo.

An analysis of how forest fires unequally shape the well-being of local communities in three cases in Sweden, Spain and Chile.


In January 2020, the world watched in horror as fires blazed across more than 18 million hectares in Australia, killing millions of animals as well as destroying more than 2,800 (human) homes. This is not an isolated situation, in the contrary it reflects what is happening to forests globally in the current context of climate change.

Large forest fires are one of the main outcomes of climate change. With a trend towards more intense and extensive fires all over the world, global biodiversity as well as rural communities are threatened every year. While state investments in extinction technologies (such as helicopters and water bombers) increase every year, expenditure in fire prevention programs is still too low (for example, + 1.500 million € vs 385 million € per year in Spain).

In order to prevent future fires and reduce their impacts on vulnerable populations, everyday experiences and efforts of rural communities while coping with fires need to be better analysed. This is important to ensure the emotional well-being and social equity in rural areas exposed to forest fires. The need is urgent in order to further develop fire prevention policies and plans that are also grounded in well-being and social justice indicators.

Research questions, study objects and research methods

The aim of this project is to analyse the unequal impacts of forest fires, and also how fires open up opportunities for social and environmental justice in rural areas. Drawing on the fields of environmental health and feminist political ecology, and combining quantitative and qualitative methodologies, this project will analyse how forest fires unequally shape the well-being of local communities in three cases: semi-natural productive forests in Sweden, exotic tree plantations in Spain and rainforests in Chile.

The implications of fires for the psychosocial wellbeing will be analysed as part of social inequalities among rural communities (mediated by gender, class, ethnicity, etc.) and between a comprehensive diversity of forest, social and political governances. Local knowledge and action generated during and after the fires will be also mapped through participatory research methods.

Analysing how psychosocial impacts are socially distributed, which local knowledge is recognised, and how local participation takes place during and after forest fires will enable an environmental justice perspective of forest fires. The framework, methods and results of this project seek to inspire researchers and policymakers responsible for forest fire prevention plans in Sweden, Europe and Latin America, towards learning from forest fires: to reduce their socio-environmental impacts and prevent future ones.

The project and the Agenda 2030 SDGs

We need to address the social and environmental impacts of forest fires as questions of wellbeing and social inequality in order to: strengthen the quality of life and well-being of peoples living in areas prone to forest fires (SDG Goal 3-Good health and well-being); decrease unequal impacts among rural communities and across countries (SDG Goal 5 Gender and 10 Reduced Inequalities) and further incorporate local knowledge and action for preventing new forest fires (SDG Goals 13, Climate Action).

Expected outcome and societal values

This project will provide fundamental insights on how to define fire prevention policies based in situated analysis of local impacts, knowledges and action, beyond the immediate, usually male-dominated, forms of firefighting. Ensuring well-being and forestry, gender equality and resilient societies are also central for the implementation of Agenda 2030 in which Sweden strives to be a leader.

The project will provide indicators and methods for local and national forestry administrations about how to better understand the social impacts of forest fires, specifically for the mapping of the less visible, psychosocial impacts.Better grasping these is important for forestry administrations to tackle and reduce conflicts that usually arise after disasters, both in the communities as well as between local communities and authorities. The project will also help to map the bottom-up local strategies generated by local rural associations; this mapping will strengthen local capacities of NGOs, forest, peasant and civil society organizations to inform sustainable forest policies and fire prevention plans.


Project leader

Marien González Hidalgo, Postdoctor, Division of Rural Development, SLU

Project time


External funding


The project is a mobility grant project with collaborations with the Johns Hopkins University-Pompeu Fabra University Public Policy Center, University of Santiago de Compostela (both in Spain) and Universidad de la Frontera (Chile).