Forest fires are up by 13% in 2020, more intense and can cross 2019’s record-breaking numbers: Study

Persistent hotter and drier weather due to climate change, and other human factors such as land conversion for agriculture, are probable causes


                            Forest fires are up by 13% in 2020, more intense and can cross 2019’s record-breaking numbers: Study
(Getty Images)

As countries focus on fighting the coronavirus pandemic, another crisis is unfolding around the world. This one is taking place in forests, where the latest fire seasons have been raging with unprecedented ferocity, from the Amazon to the Arctic. The number of fire outbreaks across the globe was up by 13% in April this year compared to last year, which was already a record year for fires, according to researchers. They warn that fires in 2020 are on course to be worse than in 2019.

Persistent hotter and drier weather due to climate change, and other human factors such as land conversion for agriculture and poor forest management are the main drivers behind the increase, say experts from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), and the Boston Consulting Group (BCG). According to them, climate change and wildfires mutually reinforce each other, and the fires burning today in many parts of the world are bigger, more intense, and last longer than they used to. If current trends continue, there will be devastating long-term consequences on people, wildlife, and the climate, they warn. A greater number of more intense fires, for example, will release millions of extra tonnes of carbon, decimate biodiversity, destroy vital ecosystems, impact economies and people, threaten property and livelihoods, and cause severe long-term health problems for millions around the world.

The analysis comes amid wildfire reports across countries, including California where firefighters are battling some of the largest wildfires in recorded history. “The world witnessed the devastating consequences of the fires last year, from billions of wildlife lost and people losing their homes and livelihoods, not to mention the impact on climate. Proactivity and commitment must be at the heart of a global response to fires that must play out at local, sub-national, national, and regional levels. Preventing fires before they occur is paramount, and far preferable in all respects to suppressing them when they’re burning. Meanwhile, good intentions on paper mean nothing if they’re not followed up with real and effective actions on the ground — and these actions need to focus on forests, where the fire crisis is at its worst,” writes Fran Price, global leader for forests lead at WWF.

2020 is already a year of extremes

According to the analysis, deforestation in Columbia in the first four months of 2020 suggests the area burnt could surpass the figures for all of 2019, reversing a trend of continued falls in recent decades.

In Brazil, forest loss in the first six months of the year totaled 307,000 hectares, 26% more than the same period in 2019. Increasing deforestation is likely to result in intense fires in the Amazon biome, especially in government-controlled lands, says the team. The number of fires in the Brazilian Amazon hit a 13-year high in June, at the beginning of the dry season. In July, 6,803 outbreaks of fires were detected in the Amazon, 28% more than the same period in 2019.

Deforestation in Columbia in the first four months of 2020 suggests the area burnt could surpass the figures for all of 2019, reversing a trend of continued falls in recent decades, say experts (Getty Images)

In Bolivia, deforestation drove a 35% increase in fires from January to April 2020 compared to last year. In Australia, the 2019-2020 fire season was the worst in the country’s history, and a fifth of the entire temperate broadleaf and mixed forest biome was destroyed, equivalent to an area nearly the size of England. The investigators further say that the worst wildfires for decades swept through Northern Thailand in April, destroying up to 20% of the forested area and causing ‘critical levels’ of air pollution in Chiang Mai. Among other incidents, the team says that the worst wildfires in the Chernobyl area’s history began to burn in April, while fires across Ukraine have increased 30% this year.

The problem

Globally, fires emit carbon dioxide equivalent to the European Union every year. Their contribution to the climate crisis alone would be more than enough of a reason for the global community to treat their increase as a major threat, say experts. But that’s not all: wildfires also have severe consequences for human health and wellbeing, biodiversity, and economies around the world.

The analysis reveals that wildfires affect all biomes, from forests and savannahs to grasslands and tundra. Based on records from 2000- 2015, 85% of the surface area burned globally each year is located in tropical savannahs, which make up 19% of total land cover. While forests make up only 10% of the total area burned, their higher carbon storage capacity implies that they are responsible for one-quarter of all fire-related carbon dioxide emissions, explain researchers. “Forest fires in all biomes are responsible for nearly a quarter of all emissions from fires. Tropical forests are less resilient to fire, and their carbon storage contribution makes them an urgent priority for preventative action, explains the study. Fire seasons are getting longer, and extreme fire seasons are more common. From 1979 to 2013, the global fire season length increased by 19% on average. This increase is particularly severe in east Africa and Brazil, with the forests and savannahs of South America experiencing an average of over one month increase in the fire season,” says the report.

Climate change is also making fire seasons increasingly unpredictable. Instances of so-called ‘outliers’ — abnormally long fire seasons — have increased. The word ‘unprecedented’ is frequently heard today when it comes to fire severity, say scientists. “California provides a striking example: over the last 100 years, five of its 20 most severe wildfires occurred between 1920-2000, another five took place from 2001-2010 — and the remaining 10 all happened in the last 10 years. In the 2019-2020 winter season, California only got half its normal levels of precipitation, while Russia has just come through its warmest winter since records began years ago, beating its 2016 record by 1.3°C,” the findings suggest.

Forest fires in all biomes are responsible for about a quarter of all emissions from fires (Getty Images)

The effects of wildfires linger long after the flames die down, hitting public health and wellbeing far into the future. Every year, there are an estimated 340,000 premature deaths from respiratory and cardiovascular issues attributed to wildfire smoke. The increasing frequency and severity of wildfires pose a growing threat to biodiversity globally. Individuals, companies, and public authorities bear great economic costs due to fires, write authors. “At a time when the world is grappling with the Covid-19 pandemic, wildfire smoke increases the danger of further respiratory illnesses,” they add.

The economic costs of wildfires are going up all over the world as fires increase in frequency and severity. On an individual level, fires drastically worsen living conditions, and this has economic consequences. In the US, for example, property values decrease from 10-20% in areas affected by wildfires. In 2018, the wildfire season cost the US around $50 billion in total.

The human factor

An increasing share of wildfires is due to human activity, intentional or otherwise. This is estimated to be responsible for 75% of all wildfires in recent years. The report says that in the Northern Hemisphere, most fires are caused by negligence (such as burning rubbish and debris, industrial accidents, agricultural overspill), and arson is also sometimes to blame. In Europe, negligence causes 95% of fires, and in the US, the figure is 84%.

The most at-risk locations are so-called “wildland-urban interfaces,” where significant populations live in or near forests. In more remote forest areas, lightning is more likely to be responsible — in Canada’s British Columbia, 40% of wildfires are traced back to human origins.

In tropical and subtropical regions, forest fires are mostly intentionally set for land-use change, clearing and preparing new areas for cultivation. “Slash and burn” is a farming method used in many countries, especially in Southeast Asia and Africa, where trees are cut and burnt to expand arable land while enriching its soil with ashes and nutrients, explain authors. “Controlled fires are also used deliberately on a much larger scale in commercial agriculture, clearing the ground for palm oil plantations in Indonesia and cattle ranches in Brazil — and these fires frequently run out of control. In the Brazilian Amazon, fires are also part of a pattern of increasing encroachment into public and Indigenous Peoples’ lands,” the report states.

What can be done?

According to the research team, fires are a critical global issue that needs urgent global solutions. To have any chance of restricting the rise in global temperatures to 1.5°C in line with the Paris Agreement, more needs to be done to cut carbon emissions from forest fires, by governments, businesses, communities, and individuals alike, says experts. The best place to start is to focus on the causes and the factors driving them, they emphasize.

“We need to raise climate change ambition worldwide, improve Paris Agreement accounting for emissions from ‘non-anthropogenic’ fires, reinvest in prevention, halt deforestation,clarify governance, coordinate policies, use a science-based approach to risk and interventions, and bring businesses on board. Wildfires are a global problem and need to be prioritized in public policy and health policy,” the authors recommend.

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