Extreme Wildfire Risks Predicted in New UN Report

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Climate change and land use change — “mutually exacerbating” conditions — are projected to make wildfires more frequent and intense, with an expected global increase of extreme fires up to 14% by 2030, 30% by the end of 2050, and 50% by the end of the century. The emergency is “spreading like wildfire,” according to newly released data. “The heating of the planet is turning landscapes into tinderboxes.”

Even the Arctic — previously all but immune — faces rising wildfire risk.

The report, “Spreading like Wildfire: The Rising Threat of Extraordinary Landscape Fires,” released February 23, 2022 by the UN Environment Program (UNEP) and GRID-Arendal, finds an elevated risk even for regions previously unaffected by wildfires. Produced by more than 50 researchers from 6 continents, “Spreading like Wildfire” has been released before the resumed 5th session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-5.2) convenes in Nairobi, starting at the end of February.

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How is the global wildfire crisis and climate change “mutually exacerbating?” Wildfires are made worse by climate change through increased drought, high air temperatures, low relative humidity, lightning, and strong winds. This confluence of elements results in hotter, drier, and longer fire seasons. At the same time, climate change is made worse by wildfires, mostly by ravaging sensitive and carbon-rich ecosystems like peatlands and rainforests. This turns landscapes into tinderboxes, making it harder to halt rising temperatures.

Didn’t ancient people burn lands to force healthier crops? Free-burning landscape fire is an important natural phenomenon critical to the healthy functioning of many ecosystems. It is an important land management tool, culturally, economically, and ecologically. Therefore, not all vegetation fires are unwanted.

How is this Rapid Response Assessment (RRA) different from free-burning the landscape? RRA focuses on the apparent increase in the occurrence, extent, duration, and consequences of wildfires — unusual or extraordinary free-burning vegetation fires.

What is the definition of a “wildfire?” A wildfire is an unusual or extraordinary free-burning vegetation fire that poses significant risk to social, economic, or environmental values. It may be started maliciously, accidentally, or through natural means. A wildfire can be short in duration and small in area, but more commonly burns for an extended period and over a wide area. These are the fires that can destroy habitats, threaten species, impair ecosystem services, endanger human health, lives and livelihoods, damage national economies, and release significant amounts of particulate matter and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

What is the behavior of a wildfire like? The behavior of a wildfire can be largely benign around its perimeter, but will sometimes be characterized by periods of rapid spread and intense behavior at its front, against which suppression and other risk mitigation efforts may be ineffective. The impacts of a wildfire may be immediately and directly apparent or may materialize sometime after the fire is extinguished.

What does it take to understand “spreading like wildfire?” A critical need to better understand the behavior of wildfires is imperative. Achieving and sustaining adaptive land and fire management requires a combination of policies, legal frameworks, and incentives that encourage appropriate land and fire use.

Why are wildfires significant to the environment and societies? Wildfires affect the global carbon cycle. Wildfires in ecosystems like peatlands and rainforests, which store large amounts of irrecoverable terrestrial carbon, release vast quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere and exacerbate global warming. In this way, wildfires may accelerate the positive feedback loop in the carbon cycle, making it more difficult to halt rising temperatures.

What recommendations are contained in “Spreading like Wildfire?” The study calls for a radical change in government spending on wildfires, shifting their investments from reaction and response to prevention and preparedness. Currently, direct responses to wildfires typically receive over half of related expenditures, while planning receives less than 1%. In what’s being called a “Fire Ready Formula,” the report recommends that governments reallocate their budget line items:

  • Two-thirds of spending should be devoted to planning, prevention, preparedness, and recovery
  • One-third should be left for response

How can these devastating fires be prevented? To prevent fires, the report’s authors call for a combination of data and science-based monitoring systems with indigenous knowledge and for a stronger regional and international cooperation.

What can be done to prepare for wildfires? Communities must reassess how they work with nature and other municipalities, harness local knowledge, and invest money and political capital to reduce the likelihood of wildfires starting in the first place. For policymakers, there are the crucial steps to take:

  • Audit full wildfire costs.
  • Proactively seek out best practices and inspired examples from around the world.
  • Share data, information, and analysis to improve forecasting and learning.
  • Place wildfires in the same category of global humanitarian response as major earthquakes and floods.
  • Make new capability and financial support available to affected countries with engagement from Civil Defense.
  • Fires do not respect national borders, so a coordinated, agile, and anticipatory wildfire management mechanism is needed.

How do wildfires deepen social inequities? With an impact that extends for days, weeks, and even years after the flames subside, wildfire impede progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals:

  • People’s health is directly affected by inhaling wildfire smoke, causing respiratory and cardiovascular impacts and increased health effects for the most vulnerable.
  • The economic costs of rebuilding after areas are struck by wildfires can be beyond the means of low-income countries.
  • Watersheds are degraded by wildfires’ pollutants; they also can lead to soil erosion causing more problems for waterways.
  • Wastes left behind are often highly contaminated and require appropriate disposal.

How do pervasive wildfire threaten biodiversity? Wildlife and its natural habitats are rarely spared from wildfires, pushing some animal and plant species closer to extinction. A recent example is the Australian 2020 bushfires, which are estimated to have wiped out billions of domesticated and wild animals.

What preventative measures can be taken to protect ecosystems from wildfires? The restoration of ecosystems is an important avenue to mitigate the risk of wildfires before they occur and to build back better in their aftermath. Wetlands restoration and the reintroduction of species such as beavers, peatlands restoration, building at a distance from vegetation, and preserving open space buffers are some examples of the essential investments into prevention, preparedness, and recovery.

What can be done to reduce the risks posed by wildfires? When it comes to fighting wildfires, technology has very clear limitations. This is because controlling wildfire behavior is highly dependent on the prevailing weather and fuel conditions and accessibility. It is often only a change in weather that can help bring a wildfire under control. Therefore, the limits and appropriateness of suppression strategies and tactics and the associated suppression resource types must be well understood.

What first responder safety and health measures does the report on “Spreading like Wildfire” offer? The report concludes with a call for stronger international standards for the safety and health of firefighters and for minimizing the risks that they face before, during and after operations. This includes raising awareness of the risks of smoke inhalation, minimizing the potential for life-threatening entrapments, and providing firefighters with access to adequate hydration, nutrition, rest, and recovery between shifts.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack: https://carolynfortuna.substack.com/.

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