Spring Wildfires: How Depopulation and Aging Threaten Satoyama Landscapes

In Akita, depopulation has raised the risk of spring wildfires, threatening satoyama landscapes and the sustainability of traditional coexistence with nature.

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After the snow melts in Akita Prefecture in Northern Japan comes a season of frequent spring wildfires. Most occur on fallow farmlands or grassy areas in the mountains. Passersby or residents notice the smoke and report it. Fires breaking out in uninhabited places might seem mysterious. But in reality, the root cause of the fires is depopulation and aging in rural areas. The remaining residents are unable to carry out adequate fire prevention measures during the burning of underbrush. As such, traditionally managed satoyama landscapes are overgrown and on the verge of disappearing.

Rapid Spread of Dry Grass Fires

On April 15, approximately 45,000 square meters of dry grass, including communal lands, were burned in a mountain village on the slopes of Mount Chokai. It took five hours and the combined efforts of 11 fire trucks and all available fire brigade members to extinguish the blaze.

"A young, inexperienced person set fire to dry grass to promote the growth of edible wild plants. We had less snow this year so there was plenty of standing dry grass, and the fire spread quickly. Normally, no one would start a fire in such conditions," a local woman recounted. "Last year, an elderly person tried to burn dry grass and ended up burning his truck and the neighboring mountain," she added.

A Nationwide Problem in Spring

According to the Akita Prefectural Police, there were seven wildfire incidents in the prefecture on April 15, including the one above. The total for April alone was 64 fires. Over the last few years, some years have been worse than others.  There were 105 incidents in 2019, but only 58 in 2021. Most of these fires occur in March and April, often resulting in damage to farm buildings and injuries to people involved.

A photo taken on May 1 shows wild plants growing on the burned communal of the village on Mount Chokai thanks to nutrients in the ashes. (©Sankei by Tomoaki Yatsunami)

"Most of these fires are not spontaneous. They spread from burning underbrush or pruned branches from fruit trees. The individuals who start the fires are often too busy trying to extinguish them to report them," according to the police.

Burning underbrush as part of agricultural work is permitted only under unavoidable circumstances. Police state that investigations are still ongoing for recent wildfires.

According to a 2022 government white paper, there were 1,227 wildfires nationwide in 2021, including those in forests and fields. Over 80% of these incidents were caused by "bonfires," "controlled burns," or "unknown causes/under investigation".

The report notes that many wildfires occur between February and April when the air is dry and strong winds blow. For 2021, 751 incidents, or just over 60%, occurred during these months. In colder regions like Akita Prefecture, there are fewer incidents in February, when snow is still on the ground. 

An analysis by the Public Health Department of Akita Prefecture attributed the increased frequency to heightened agricultural activity and the popularity of gathering wild vegetables in spring, in addition to weather conditions.

Joint Efforts Challenging

Two weeks after the wildfire on Mount Chokai, vibrant green wild vegetables were sprouting on the charred communal land surrounded by forests. Bracken (warabi) and butterbur (fuki) were growing abundantly, as were sprouts of taranoki.

"30 years ago, the entire village would gather to burn underbrush in a controlled manner, but now everyone is too old to do it," explained a local farmer woman.  "If we don't burn the dry grass, the yield of wild plants decreases. And if the bushes are overgrown, we can't even enter the mountains," she lamented.

The Value of Satoyama Landscapes

Associate Professor Takeshi Nagayoshi of Akita Prefectural University, an expert in agricultural disaster prevention, commented on the situation. "In rural areas suffering from depopulation and aging, it is difficult to ensure safety measures with the few people available for controlled burns," he explained. 

But there is a cost to not burning as well. "Such burning activities are crucial for maintaining the ecosystem as intermediate disturbances that create diverse natural environments. Losing these satoyama landscapes where people have long coexisted with nature would be a significant loss," Nagayoshi emphasized.

According to Nagayoshi, organizing joint burning activities and inviting participants from other regions could be a good approach.

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