This has been the year of fire.
Across continents and climates, uncontrollable and destructive wildfires are becoming an expected part of annual calendars. This year has been a case in point. From the 45 million acres scorched during Australia’s 2019-2020 fire season to the record amount of carbon dioxide released from wildfires in Siberia (half of which burned on carbon-rich peatland), wildfires have gone from contained burns folded into the cycles of landscapes to catastrophes that wreak havoc on the lives of humans, ecosystems and economies.
The Global Landscapes Forum recently hosted a series of discussions on the state of fire in the world today. One drew together experts from Australia, Russia and Indonesia, and another featured two experts on the fires happening across the Amazon and the west coast of the US. Together, their ideas weaved through human and ecological causes of the fires, how they should be confronted, and how the new reality of fires plays into the global future.
Climate change sets the stage
Climate change is affecting global wildfires, such as by increasing the fire season and size of areas affected by fire. Droughts, which might be exacerbated by climate change, can also make wildfires more likely.
Australia has been experiencing such a drought over the past few years, which contributed to the wide spread of the wildfires during its last fire season, according to Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, a climate scientist at the Climate Change Research Center at Sydney’s University of New South Wales. She stressed that climate change is changing the nature and intensity of the fires, such as by resulting in more pyrocumulonimbus clouds – clouds formed on top of heat sources – that can bring lightning-intensive storms and increase the spread of fire.
In Australia, most bushfires are caused by lightning or by accident, but scientists have argued that an increasingly hot climate will provide the conditions necessary for extreme fires to happen more frequently.
“Climate change is the picture of the fire landscape now. We’ve been saying that for a couple of decades, and we knew that around about now we’d start to see the impact of climate change on bushfires,” said Perkins-Kirkpatrick.
“In terms of long-term strategies, we’ve got to just do more than adapt. We need to mitigate. That is the bottom line.”
The 2019-2020 bushfires in Australia, also known as the Black Summer fires, underline this point. During that period, nearly 19 million hectares burned, destroying over 3,000 homes and killing 33 people. A number of records were set that season: More burned area in New South Wales and Victoria than during any other fire season for the past 20 years and the greatest number of houses lost in South Australia in the past 20 years.
However, Perkins-Kirkpatrick says that this year’s bushfire season should not be as severe as last year’s because of the La Niña phenomenon, which is when the sea surface temperature in the eastern Pacific Ocean is cooler by 3 to 5 degrees Celsius and is considered the cooler counterpart of El Niño. For eastern Australia, this means more rainfall, less dry fuel available and less extreme heat, although the drought has still not been fully broken.
The occurrence of La Niña has also resulted in fewer fires this year in Indonesia than in 2019, which was an El Niño year, notes Daniel Murdiyarso, a principal scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research and expert on tropical peatlands. He says that the occurrence of fire is consistent with the drought conditions driven by El Niño.
“COVID-19 pressure arrived in February or March, so I think most of the attention has shifted toward that – and I believe the budget also,” he says. “So it is a blessing that a fire did not happen and that COVID-19 can be handled more seriously. It is handled by the same agencies centrally, so I cannot imagine if a fire happened and they had a huge task to handle at the same time.”
Last year, around 1.64 million hectares burned across seven Indonesian provinces, 76 percent of which were on “idle land,” which means former forests that were converted into degraded shrubland after undergoing a number of burn cycles. Although most fires are set intentionally in Indonesia to clear for agriculture, such fires can easily spread beyond the intended area.
In Siberia and Russia, climate change is causing winters to become shorter and weather to become drier and windier, notes Anton Beneslavskiy, a forest fire expert and firefighter with Greenpeace Russia. These conditions lead to more intense fires occurring across larger areas. The problem compounds when the fewer number of trees post-fire then have more difficulty restoring the burned area through regrowth.
Roughly half the fires have burned on carbon-rich peatland. A vicious cycle may then ensue: As global temperatures rise, these carbon-rich but frozen peatlands begin to thaw, which makes them susceptible to wildfires that release their carbon stores into the atmosphere, further heating the planet.
Beneslavskiy also stressed the hydrological effects of the fires on Siberian and Russian water systems. Deforestation caused by the fires has led to flooding in some areas that have never experienced flooding before. According to Greenpeace Russia, while some of the fires were caused by lightning, others were caused accidentally – such as from campfires – or intentionally, such as those related to logging.
In the Southern Hemisphere, the Amazon rainforest is a key bulwark against runaway climate change and absorbs 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually – around 5 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. However, it too is affected and made fire-prone by global warming and drought, which is seeing leaves in the forest dry up and become fire hazards, said Daniel Nepstad, the president and founder of the Earth Innovation Institute and an expert on the Brazilian Amazon. The Amazon has been predicted to eventually transform from a carbon sink to a carbon emitter as early as the next decade.
He discussed how the healthy virgin forest in the Amazon is surprisingly resistant to fire, but the rainforest is reaching its ecological tipping point: “We’ve overcome the resilience of the ecosystem. This is a tough forest. When it’s damaged, it regrows, but when you get highly flammable plants in the understory, like grasses and bracken ferns and things like that, and they catch fire again, you basically overcome that capacity to rebound. That’s my greatest concern.”
The role of deforestation
In many landscapes, fire is often used to clear land for agriculture. While a cheap method, and one long engrained into the natural cycles of ecosystems and local land management practices, changing climatic and weather conditions are now seeing these fires become more prone to uncontrollable spread.
This is the case in Russia, where many fires are started in abandoned fields, once used for agriculture during the Soviet Union but now vacant as farming has become more intensified and contained within less land. Greenpeace advocates that farmers should be allowed to grow forests or logging plantations on these farms, said Beneslavskiy, which can also help keep logging companies from encroaching on natural forests.
He added that this will also shift places of ignition from natural forests to agricultural lands, which are fragmented, better guarded and have better logistics – factors that increase the likelihood of fires being suppressed in their early stages.
Human-caused fires are also a major issue in Indonesia, explained Murdiyarso, where large areas of peatland were burned during last year’s fires to be converted into tree plantations. These fires pumped 708 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere – nearly double that released by the 2019 Amazon fires. In total, Indonesia’s peatlands are estimated to contain 28.1 gigatons of carbon.
The coupling of global warming and drainage due to land development for cash-crops and agriculture sees these naturally water-logged landscapes dried and drained, and therefore more prone to fires that burn deep below the ground, making them difficult to extinguish.
The key preventative measure, he said, is rewetting dried peatlands – though this is a laborious and expensive undertaking.
Most fires in the Amazon are set deliberately to clear forest for agriculture or livestock. Leila Salazar-López, executive director of Amazon Watch, said that while many of the recent fires in the Amazon are in previously degraded forests, an increase of fires in primary forest has also been recorded. Data from Global Forest Watch indicates that roughly 7 percent of primary forest in the Brazilian Amazon was lost in 2019, compared to less around 0.5 percent in 2002.
The Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland and home to many rare or endangered species, has undergone record burning this year, with at around 20,360 square kilometers burned in the South American wetland between January and August. Soy and cattle farmers set fires on their land during the summer, but drought and strong winds caused these fires to rage out of control and surpass traditional barriers such as roads and streams.
Salazar-López said that since the beginning of the Bolsonaro administration, the 12-month deforestation rate has risen 96 percent in the Brazilian Amazon because environmental laws have been gutted, in addition to funding for environmental and indigenous ministries being slashed. This results in environmental rules and Indigenous peoples’ rights being threatened through land grabbing.
Despite the importance of the Amazon, Nepstad said that a polarized approach of protecting the Amazon will not result in good solutions, and policies must work with people on the ground to provide more incentives to preserve forests in plots of land. For example, a plot of land without forest is worth more on the market than that with forest, even though the forested plot provides massive benefits for the planet worth multiple times the cost difference. He stated that if people can be incentivized to keep their land forested, then the critical role of the forest in creating its rain can be restored.
The future of fire management
Since the climate conditions and nature of the fires are changing, the way fires are fought must also change in step.
As someone with first-hand experience fighting fires, Beneslavskiy has noticed that recent fires are more difficult to fight. Previously, firefighters would face less intense ground fires, and large trees would not be too damaged. Now, forests are becoming more likely to be burned from top to bottom, with crown fires scorching through large tracts of forest. This in turn adds pressure on firefighters and firefighting resources.
“We fight fires, we do not sleep, we get post-traumatic stress disorder, and we wait for the rain. So, we just keep [the fire], we do not fight it. We keep it until the rain comes,” he said.
Indigenous practices of prescribed burning are also being given more attention as fire management methods, speakers said. This process involves burning a specific area to reduce flammable fuel loads built up over time, preventing singular large and destructive fires. The Yurok, for instance, an Indigenous group native to California, used low-intensity fires to shape their landscape and encourage plants to grow. These controlled burns were also a spiritual practice, said Salazar-López.
However, applying such burns across large parts of the west coast will involve a radical change in housing policy. When people move into the forest, any forest fire becomes a danger to them and their property. Nepstad said that around 80,000 hectares underwent prescribed burns this year – but this number should ideally reach 300,000 to 400,000 hectares, spaced out over the year. He calls for a long-term strategy to reduce the number of people living in flammable landscapes and for homes to be fire-proofed.
At a community level, a shift in local awareness of the impacts of fires might be key, a point brought up by Murdiyarso, particularly in countries like Indonesia where most wildfires are started intentionally. When these fires get out of control, local communities are often involved in fighting them without understanding the personal importance of doing so, such as the fact that their communities are the first to inhale carcinogenic elements from the smoke.
Although government solutions to the fires almost always depend on the use of technology, Murdiyarso stresses that educating local communities must be part of the process, such as through awareness campaigns about the health implications of being in proximity to fires.
In the meantime, many communities around the world will have to adjust to a world with more widespread, destructive fires and the alternation of days of clean or dangerous air. Salazar-López describes the new normal across large parts of California, which was engulfed in toxic smoke these past few weeks:
“Our new normal in the Bay area has been constantly checking the AQI [air quality index],” she says. “I have, like, four different apps on my phone looking at what the air quality is like. Usually you look at what the weather’s like, but now we’re also looking at the AQI, the air quality.
“Can I go outside? Can my kids go to the park today?”