Summer has come for those of us in the northern hemisphere. But for many, another season comes to mind during this time of year: fire season.
Wildfires – the uncontrollable, damaging fires that usually only a shift in weather can defeat – have already begun to erupt in places like the U.S., where more than 2 million hectares have been burned so far this year. Flames have cropped up in countries around the Mediterranean, which are also undergoing heatwaves. Canada, Lebanon, India and other areas have also battled wildfires this year.
Out-of-control fires like these are scary, extremely costly and often unexpected. And paradoxically, the thing experts agree upon most when asked about their fire predictions for this year, is that it’s all very unpredictable.
Indicators have already suggested that the Amazon rainforest could see more fires than usual this year. More than 7,500 fires had been recorded in the region in the first half of 2022, a 17 percent increase from the same time last year and the highest number in more than 10 years. This is a bad sign for the rest of the fire season, says Mariana Napolitano Ferreira, the head of science for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Brazil.
Although the Amazon is not a naturally fire-prone ecosystem, she explains that the dry season has begun in parts of the rainforest, which is also the time when it is easier to chop down trees and set fires to finish clearing land for agriculture. Fragmented or degraded forests are also easier to catch fire, such as when fires are set on pasture lands and then spread to nearby forests.
Napolitano Ferreira adds that federal- and state-level elections that will be held this year in Brazil could also translate into more fires, as local leaders in the Amazon region may not want to crack down too hard on illegal land practices and risk alienating voters: “You have elections for all the ranges, and local politicians are connected to decision-makers at the level of land use in the Amazon, so law enforcement is not popular,” she says.
“So we are expecting – I wouldn’t say ‘catastrophic’ – but we’re expecting a very bad season of fires.”
Russia could also see a bad fire season this year, and smog from wildfires has been reported this month to have blanketed an eastern city. The spring fire peak, characterized by many fast-moving grassland fires, has passed. But the summer fire peak remains in full swing, and during this time, fires tend to be concentrated in forest areas. These forest fires, although fewer in number than the grassland fires, can grow to enormous sizes and be left to burn out if they are too remote or costly to fight.
The vast majority of fires in Russia, possibly nine out of ten, are started by people, typically for agricultural purposes. But climate change has also exacerbated the situation by creating weather conditions conducive to fire. Grigory Kuksin, Greenpeace Russia’s Wildfire Unit Head, says that the intensity of annual fire seasons used to run on a predictable cycle, with every fourth year stronger than the rest. The last five years, however, have all had extreme seasons.
“Each year, the fires are stronger than in the previous year and bigger. And the way the fire behaves changes because of climate change,” says Kuksin. “They burn stronger, and they burn on new territories, particularly to the north … where there were no fires before.”
“So we expect another hard season, maybe as hard as the previous years, because the funding of the firefighting system is the same, and the conditions didn’t improve.”
Meanwhile, in the U.S., a number of high-profile fires have already been raging. At the moment, a wildfire in Yosemite National Park is threatening a grove of giant sequoias, some of which date back thousands of years and are the largest trees in the world. Much of the western U.S. has been hit by a megadrought for decades, and areas burned by wildfires have increased substantially just in California alone.
According to Nick Nauslar, a meteorologist at the National Interagency Coordination Center, which oversees national-level fire response, much of the West Coast and parts of the Great Basin region, Alaska and the Plains are expected to experience more active fire seasons than normal. A report detailing the fire outlook for the country’s wildlands stated that the burned area in the 12 months leading up to June this year was more than double the 10-year average.
Other places, though, could see less fire activity than normal: “It was very busy in California, the Northwest and Northern Rockies last year, but a cool and wet spring-to–early summer has delayed significant fire potential this year across the Northwest and Northern Rockies,” said Nauslar in an email.
A complicated picture
Some experts, however, highlight the difficulty of predicting wildfires. Given their sheer complexity, perhaps this isn’t so surprising. Everything from weather conditions, fuel (referring to the amount of vegetation or other flammable material in an area) and the geographical features of the landscape itself factor into whether local conditions are ripe for wildfires.
Add in shifting temperature and rainfall patterns, land-use changes and an influx of people in fire-prone areas, and the calculus for wildfire risk becomes even more complex.
“We can’t say we are going to get this many more [wildfires] and this much more land is going to burn. It’s just because there are so many factors that are contributing to it,” says Tiina Kurvits, a senior specialist of ecosystem management at the Norway-based GRID-Arendal, which along with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) published a report earlier this year on the growing risk of wildfires.
Nevertheless, a couple wildfire trends have been appearing, according to the report. Fire seasons have been generally occurring earlier and more intensely than before. In some areas, “fire weather” – weather more likely to spark dry lightning or that is hotter, drier and windier – has become more common or intense, leading to longer fire seasons with more frequent and hotter fires.
The report also describes a growing tendency for wildfires to appear where in the past they were rare: peatlands, permafrost regions and tropical rainforests. The burning of any of these biomes is particularly concerning because of massive amounts of carbon released contribute to climate change.
Peatlands, for example, only cover around 3 percent of the world’s land surface but hold more than 40 percent of all soil carbon, exceeding that of the world’s forests. The Arctic, where much of the world’s peatlands are frozen in permafrost, is warming faster than the rest of the planet. As the region’s permafrost peatlands heat up and thaw, these vast carbon reservoirs become susceptible to catching fire and releasing their carbon into the atmosphere.
This makes uncontained wildfires even more alarming in Russia, where peatlands cover 10 percent of its territory. Kuksin said that much of Russia’s peatlands were drained in the 20th century, drying them out and leaving them vulnerable to fires. Aside from releasing air pollution, methane, and even radiation or unexploded ordinance from wars past, burning peat can also turn into “zombie fires” – fires that smolder and spread underground during the winter, reemerging in new places in the spring.
“They still burn under the surface, where there is real Siberian frost and thick snow, but they still burn and survive the winter,” says Kuksin. “It has become a really big problem.”
What the wildfires leave behind
Wildfires are costly disasters, racking up USD 50 to 70 billion last year in economic damages in the U.S. alone. But the destruction they leave behind often goes beyond that initial amount. The smoke affects the health of people downwind, and the massive wildfires that now rip through ecosystems can overwhelm even those that had developed fire resistance. The 2019 to 2020 Black Summer fires in Australia killed or displaced up to 3 billion animals in a biome accustomed to regular fires.
So what can be done about this? Besides stopping climate change, the experts highlighted a number of ways that wildfire damage can be mitigated, from individual actions to government policy.
Carrie Bilbao, a U.S. Bureau of Land Management public affairs specialist, pointed to the Firewise USA program as a way for American communities to help fire-proof themselves. The initiative recommends that homeowners reduce flammable vegetation around their houses, invest in more fire-resistant roofing or siding, and create an emergency wildfire plan with their family. For community-level protection, local volunteers can form a board, enlist a wildfire expert to assess the fire risk of their area and create an action plan to reduce this risk.
“The only solution is to remove fuels, so when we have the next fire – and it will come – then the amount of fuel will not be huge, and the intensity of the fire will not be that high, so the fire can be controlled.” said Jesús San-Miguel-Ayanz, the program head of the European Union’s Global Wildfire Information System.
Community action can also take the form of volunteer firefighting, which Kuksin said has been crucial in containing fires – although he noted that the Russian government should also invest more in firefighting resources.
The UNEP fire report, on the other hand, recommends that governments increase investment in planning, prevention and post-fire recovery. While each country’s ideal ratio will be different, it provides a guideline of up to 1 percent for collecting and analyzing fire data, 32 percent for preventing fires (reducing fuel loads, designing more fire-resilient buildings), 13 percent for fire preparation (creating evacuation plans with residents), 34 percent for the firefighting itself and up to 20 percent to help communities recover after fires.
“Once you see the flying planes in the news, you’ve probably lost the war. It’s too late,” says Gabriel Labbate, the head of UNEP’s climate mitigation unit and the UN REDD global team leader, referring to firefighting aircraft. “It’s not sexy, but knowledge and prevention can really go a long way [toward fighting wildfires].”
As a preventative action, prescribed burns have emerged as a method for some localities to remove fuel and reduce wildfire intensity. Many Indigenous peoples have long used prescribed burns to shape the landscape and prevent uncontrollable fires. Those in Australia, for example, have used controlled burns for millennia to produce a mosaic patchwork landscape that helps limit the spread of wildfires.
“In North America, we’ve had a problem with decades of fire suppression and not letting natural systems burn,” says Kurvits. “But now we’ve since learned that these ecosystems need to burn occasionally. There are some pine species that actually need that fire to open up the cones so they can regenerate.”
Yet some worry that prescribed burns are not feasible or even dangerous. They can sometimes escape and grow out of control, turning into the wildfires they were meant to prevent. Kuksin says that with climate change lengthening fire seasons, less time is left to safely conduct the burns, which can only be applied during cooler and wetter times of the year.
He adds that Russian firefighters also believe that regularly burning a forest leaves them more vulnerable to future wildfires: “It’s a vicious cycle. In order to maintain fire safety, you have to burn [the forests]. The more you burn, the more you form this dangerous type of landscape. At a certain point you cannot stop. You have to burn it every year.”
But for Kuksin, enforcing laws against agricultural fires remains the best way to fight Russia’s fires. Napolitano Ferreira also cites the importance of adequately enforcing laws and stopping illegal land practices in preventing fires in the Amazon rainforest. This is especially so, she adds, because most fires in the Amazon are caused by people, and are therefore usually illegal.
“The reduced budget and lack of actual law enforcement operations in the Amazon lately are behind this increasing trend in terms of deforestation and fire,” says Napolitano Ferreira. “So this is the number one thing. We need to monitor what’s happening and act upon it.”