Want to stop wildfires in their tracks? Be proactive

To reduce damage from wildfires, adopt sustainable forest and land management practices before blazes begin

The Calwood Fire in the U.S. state of Colorado, late 2020. Malachi Brooks, Unsplash
18 August 2021

By Peter Moore, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)

When the temperature reached 49.6°C in the village of Lytton in British Columbia in June, many were shocked to hear of such record-breaking heat in Canada. Then Lytton suddenly went up in flames and burned to the ground.

Lytton was just a foretaste of what would follow: the world’s worst July for wildfires since satellite records began, followed by intense blazes this month in Italy, Greece, Turkey, Russia and the United States, among others. Smoke from wildfires in Siberia reached the North Pole in another first, according to NASA.

Wildfires of this magnitude are catastrophic for those in their path and affect the achievement of many of the Sustainable Development Goals, including those on biodiversity, life on land and climate.

Globally, over 370 million hectares of land burn every year, releasing 1.9 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases. While wildfires in forests only account for 5 percent of the Earth’s burned area, they contribute to more than 80 percent of these emissions.

So what is causing these huge blazes, and what can we do about them?

We know that humans cause 90 percent or more of fires, intentionally or otherwise. Fires have been used by humans for millennia and are a traditional and cost-effective tool for smallholders and indigenous people to prepare land for agriculture. They are also important to maintain some ecosystems, such as savannas.

What has changed is an increasing trend towards people abandoning cultivated land and farmland as they move to urban areas for employment, education and services. By 2050, 66% of the world’s population is projected to be urban. On the abandoned lands left behind, shrubs, trees and grasses are no longer grazed, used or removed.

At the same time, some people live too near to forests, encroaching on natural spaces and suppressing small fires that would naturally burn away dead matter and then go out.

In both cases, dead matter builds up, and later, when a fire starts again, it burns much more intensely.

There is also increasing evidence that climate change may be turning fires into wildfires that rage out of control because of higher temperatures, longer periods of drought and longer fire seasons.

A recent study showed that fire weather seasons have lengthened across 25 percent of the Earth’s vegetated areas, resulting in a 19 percent increase in global mean fire weather season length. Hotter and drier periods are lasting longer, making it easier for fires to ignite and to continue to burn.

Last week in a report described by UN Secretary General António Guterres as a ‘code red for humanity’, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that under current trajectories global warming of 2°C will be exceeded during the 21st century. Increases in fire weather in many regions are one of the many consequences predicted by the report unless greenhouse gas emissions are slashed in coming decades.

The sad reality is that wildfires are no longer an unprecedented emergency, and we need to learn our lesson.

Huge wildfires are very hard, if not impossible, to put out. But there will be far fewer fires requiring reaction if governments plan ahead, prioritize prevention strategies and strengthen forest management to reduce the risks in the first place.

Using remote sensing to analyse burnt areas and examine land use and vegetation cover can help deepen our understanding of fires, especially when combined with analyses of the social and economic influences on fire causes and impacts.

A number of countries have developed national fire management strategies, including Algeria, Australia, Canada, Morocco and the United States. After disastrous fires in 2017, Portugal set up a process to reform their approach, creating a national agency to review past fires and reinforce the most effective elements of fire management in the country. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has meanwhile been supporting countries including Myanmar and Timor Leste to develop national approaches.

While we must take measures to fight climate change, these alone will not stop wildfires from happening. If we want to reduce the damage caused by wildfires, governments must act so that sustainable forest and land management practices and integrated fire management systems are already in place before blazes begin.

This editorial was originally published with Reuters Thomson.


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