Climate, Land Use Change Augment Wildfires

Climate change and land-use change are projected to make wildfires more frequent and intense, with a global increase of extreme fires of up to 14 per cent by 2030, 30 per cent by the end of 2050 and 50 per cent by the end of the century, according to a new report by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and GRID-Arendal.

The report, Spreading like wildfire: The Rising Threat of Extraordinary Landscape Fires calls for a radical change in government spending on wildfires, shifting their investments from reaction and response to prevention and preparedness.

RISK OF WILDFIRES IS CHANGING

The impact of climate change on fire behaviour in the future is complex, the report said and pointed at an elevated risk even for the Arctic and other regions previously unaffected by wildfires.

It said that many of the factors – climate, land use and land management practices, and demographics – are changing. As a consequence, the risk of wildfires in many regions is also changing. Where wildfires previously occurred, risk may increase or decrease; in regions that previously did not experience wildfires, risk is increasing.

In the foreword, Ecosystems Division, UNEP director Susan Gardner and GRID-Arendal Managing Director Peter Harris said that fire was changing because “we are changing the conditions in which it occurs”. “Not all fires are harmful, and not all fires need to be extinguished as they serve important ecological purpose. However, wildfires that burn for weeks and that may affect millions of people over thousands of square kilometres present a challenge that, right now, we are not prepared for,” they said.

“The heating of the planet is turning landscapes into tinderboxes, while more extreme weather means stronger, hotter, drier winds to fan the flames. Too often, our response is tardy, costly, and after the fact, with many countries suffering from a chronic lack of investment in planning and prevention. To better prepare ourselves and limit the widespread damage done by wildfires, we need to take heed of the clear warnings and recommendations for future action outlined in this report. We must work with nature, communities, harness local knowledge, and invest money and political capital in reducing the likelihood of wildfires starting in the first place and the risk of damage and loss that comes when they do,” they said in the foreword.

SIGNIFICANCE OF WILDFIRES
  • Wildfires can significantly affect the global carbon cycle.
  • Wildfires can have significant economic impacts on individuals, communities, and nations
  • Wildfire smoke contains particulates and toxic combustion products that have been shown to cause respiratory harm and evidence is mounting for detrimental cardiovascular impacts and increased risk of neurological disorders.
  • Wildfires can be devastating to wildlife due to mortality during the fire and, for some animals, post-fire habitat changes.
  • Wildfires can negatively impact water catchments
REDUCING WILDFIRES

The governments need to adopt a new ‘Fire Ready Formula’, with two-thirds of spending devoted to planning, prevention, preparedness, and recovery, with one third left for response. Currently, direct responses to wildfires typically receive over half of related expenditures, while planning receives less than one per cent. A combination of data and science-based monitoring systems with indigenous knowledge and for a stronger regional and international cooperation needed.

A FEW OTHERS

  • Understand wildfire behaviour and improve fuel management and wildfire monitoring
  • Promote an integrated fire management approach Support and integrate Indigenous, traditional, and contemporary fire management practices into policy
  • Strengthen international and regional cooperation on wildfires
  • Rebalance investments spent on reactive suppression to proactive wildfire mitigation and management
  • Empower communities and local authorities
  • Improve fire-fighter safety
  • Promote the collection of data and information on the gender dimension of wildfires

 

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